Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a noir detective novel that takes place in an alternative history setting. The novel’s protagonist, Meyer Landsman, is a detective who
has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker.
Unfortunately, these are difficult times to be a Jew. In Landsman’s world, America provided the Jews with a temporary settlement in Sitka, Alaska, in 1940. (Jews settled in Israel after World War Two, but lost the Arab-Israeli War.) In two months, Landsman and all the other Jews will face Reversion, when the United States retakes control of Sitka. Everyone will have to find a new homeland, which, unlike everyone else, Landsman has not even begun trying to do. As he reflects, his homeland is in his “ex-wife’s totebag.”
At the start of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Landsman has been divorced from his wife, Bina Gelbfish, for several years. The bachelor’s life does not suit Landsman, who now stays at the dilapidated Hotel Zamenhof. He stays up all night drinking at his table, wearing an undershirt, underpants, and his “sholem.” (A glossary of Yiddish terms at the end of the novel explains that a sholem is a gun, a pun on the Yiddish word for “peace” and the American slang for gun, “piece.”) The night manager of Hotel Zamenhof, Tenenboym, wakes Landsman up in the middle of the night because one of the hotel’s guests has been murdered. As Landsman prepares to investigate, Tenenboym explains that he has touched nothing in the crime scene but the cash and jewelry.
Landsman can tell that the crime scene appears to be a mob hit. A man who looks like a junkie is lying face down on his bed. He has been shot in the back of the head. It appears that the murderer used a pillow to silence the shot. There is a chessboard in the middle of the room, and the pieces are arranged in an intricate problem. A book of famous chess games is nearby as well. Landsman is not a talented chess player, but he is familiar with the game and can read the board. Even after further investigation, Landsman learns little. No one saw anyone come or go. Landsman goes all the way to the basement of the hotel in spite of his fear of the dark. He sees a tunnel that might be connected to a maze of underground tunnels, which people call “Warsaw Tunnels.” However, Landsman cannot see how someone would have been able to close the trapdoor behind them and dismisses the tunnel as a point of entry. It looks like a difficult case, but Landsman calls his precinct and asks to be assigned as the primary detective on the case.
That night he calls his partner, Berko Shemets, to explain that he has opened a new homicide case. Berko Shemets is half Jewish and half Tlingit Indian. The next morning, they discover that the investigation is not going to proceed as usual. Landsman’s ex-wife, Bina, has been promoted and is now Landsman’s commanding officer. Bina is strong willed, bold, and an intelligent investigator. She is armed with a gun but also carries a large bag in which she seems to be able to find anything she needs. In preparation for Reversion, the precinct is preparing to close as many cases as they can. Cold cases are closed first, and Bina closes Landsman’s case from the night before. Sitka is going to hand over a clean house when Reversion comes.
Landsman continues investigating anyway. Following a lead on the chess game, he finds a community of Jewish players and learns that the homicide victim was Mendel Shpilman, who used to play chess for money that he could spend on heroin. He was the son of the Verbover Rebbe. The Verbovers are Hasidic Jews—and they are Sitka’s most powerful criminal organization. When Landsman pays a tense visit to the crime lord, he learns that many expected...
(The entire section is 1584 words.)