“How It Was Done in Odessa” belongs to a cycle of four stories known as the Odessa Tales, which were written by Isaac Babel between 1921 and 1923 and published as Odesskie rasskazy (1931; Tales of Odessa, 1955). All these tales concern the adventures of a Jewish gangster, Benya Krik. “How It Was Done in Odessa” is begun by a first-person narrator, who asks Reb Arye-Leib how Benya came to be known as “the King.” The story that follows is told by Reb Arye-Leib in response to that question.
Reb Arye-Leib’s story begins when Benya is twenty-five years old. Benya appeals to the then leading gangster for permission to join the gang, and the gangsters decide to test him by asking him to rob Ruvim Tartakovsky, one of the wealthiest and most influential Jews in Odessa, who has already been robbed nine times before.
Benya accepts the gangsters’ challenge and sends an extremely polite letter to Tartakovsky requesting his cooperation. Tartakovsky actually replies to Benya’s letter, but the reply is never received, and Benya and his companions proceed to Tartakovsky’s office as threatened. When they arrive, the office is occupied only by the frightened clerk, Joseph Muginstein. The robbery proceeds without incident, but as they are emptying the safe, another member of the gang, Savka Butsis, arrives late and drunk. The drunken Savka accidentally shoots Muginstein in the stomach, and the gang runs away....
(The entire section is 463 words.)