The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Michael Chabon's book is a humorous and unusual mystery, set in alternate timeline Alaska. | A book review by Newbery and Beyond

So, apparently, Michael Chabon is a thing that I’ve been missing out on.  I picked up this book after reading a review of it (so long ago that I forget where I read the review) and had no idea what to make of the blurb on the back cover stating that this was a book that only Michael Chabon could have written.  I’ve since read another of his books, but The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was my introduction to Chabon.  And I eventually came to the same conclusion as the blurb-writer: This is a book that only Michael Chabon could have written.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline Alaska, where Jews were given refuge during WWII but now, decades later, are being forced out.  Chabon himself is Jewish, and he infuses his story with various kinds of Jews who all have different ways of expressing their heritage, but who all have the same innate sadness and even anger toward life as a Jew.

Landsman is a cop in this small Alaskan town, and his life has gone from bad to worse.  He’s living in a rundown hotel on the outskirts of town, slowly drinking himself into oblivion and trying not to think of how horribly wrong things went with his ex-wife, when a no-name druggie is expertly murdered in a room at his hotel.  The crime hits close to home, and Landsman decides to investigate, even though his police station is about to be taken over by American law enforcement.  His investigation brings him into contact with powerful and dangerous Jewish sects, chess players, and his formidable ex-wife.

The writing is humorous, but not funny (and, warning, there is plenty of language).  The book is filled with great character details and unusual words and phrasing, which I found interesting and amusing, but others might find pretentious.

The mystery itself was interesting, not quite a crime procedural or a thriller, but also never stepping into Agatha Christie territory.  It becomes much larger than just the murder of a drug addict in a flophouse, and Landsman is forced to deal with the ghosts of his past and the looming future of his Jewish settlement becoming American property again.  The resolution, however, left a little to be desired, in my opinion (*slight spoiler warning ahead!*).  One of my pet peeves in mysteries is when the killer gets away with it, and that’s what happens in this book.  However, the emotional payoff was satisfying, so I couldn’t be too upset.

Michael Chabon is definitely not for everyone.  As I mentioned before, his use of words and phrasing can border on pretentious, and for some, his style will get in the way of his stories.  However, if you can get past the writing (or even enjoy it, as I did), you’ll find a story about Jewish life, Alaska, and murder that will hold your interest until the very end.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

About Monica

I am obsessed with all things books. I'm a music teacher by day and a freelance editor by night.

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