I can honestly say I was concerned by this “Mystery of the Hebrew Detective,” mainly before and after writing the first installment in my literary detective series, The Missing File.
As I come from a family of Mizrahi origins, and since I admire the literary tradition of the realistic police-procedural, I chose not to back down. My protagonist, Inspector Avraham Avraham, is a peripheral character, from Mizrahi origins, like police officers in Israel usually are, and certainly like they are in Israeli culture.
He works in Holon, my home town, which is an urban, lower-middle-class, suburb of Tel Aviv. He didn’t grow up in a kibbutz, he doesn’t work for the Mossad, and the cases he’s investigating don’t have any national importance. He doesn’t chase old hiding Nazi criminals and not even Muslim terrorists. In The Missing File, he’s just looking for a sixteen-year-old boy, as unimportant as him, who went missing.
Still, I tried to address the problem of writing a detective in Israel in some ways.
For example, my inspector, in this first novel, is not very bright and not always successful. My plan is that he’ll get better and better as the series continues, until he’s as good as Sherlock Holmes. My hope is that his slow progression will make it easier to accept him as a realistic literary hero.
I also gave him a female boss, from Ashkenazi origins, toward whom he has complex feelings of admiration and fear. With this set-up, I tried to reflect the ethnic and social tensions which affect the possibility of him becoming a true Israeli hero.
Have I succeeded? Will Inspector Avraham become “a mythological character in Hebrew literature” as one of the novel’s critics wrote?
I still don’t know.
I do know that the response to his character and to the novel in foreign countries and languages to which it was translated, were sometimes even stronger than they were in Israel. It seemed to me that it was sometimes easier for foreign readers to accept him as true Israeli protagonist than it was for readers here.
But I can tell you one thing about Inspector Avraham Avraham—he never gives up.
And neither do I.
We’re both determined to put an end to this “Mystery of the Hebrew Detective”—solve it, once and for all.
I’ll try to summarize the new problem of writing a detective in Hebrew in a simple way. The biography of the typical hero of Israeli canonical literature, from its beginnings, is more or less this: he’s a man; he was born in Europe, or in later periods to a family of European origins; he has survived the Holocaust, or was born to a family of survivors. He grew up in a kibbutz, joined the army and served in one of the elitist units, was maybe even injured in 1967 or 1973, and sometime later on joined the Mossad.
Unfortunately, the protagonist of the realistic crime novel set in Israel cannot have this biography. The Israeli police force, from its early days until today, is composed mainly of Mizrahim (Israelis coming to Israel from Arab or Muslim countries) and those who grew up in the social and cultural peripheries of Israel.
Thus, the cultural image of the police force and the police investigator in Israel is always slightly dejected. For example, the most memorable image of the cop in Israeli culture is by no doubt that of “Policeman Azoulay,” the protagonist of the popular comic film made by Efraim Kishon in 1971. Azoulay is from Moroccan origins, and he is a pathetic – although heart-breaking – character. He can certainly be the protagonist of a popular comedy, but can he be the serious hero of a detective novel, meaning a character that’s supposed to be brighter, sharp, and more intelligent than others?
This is, in brief, the dilemma that an aspiring crime writer faces when trying to write an Israeli realistic police-procedural that also aims to be canonical literature: Should he break the rules of Realism and create a police investigator that might have the same biography of the typical Israeli protagonist and thus can be accepted as a potential hero of Israeli culture? Or should he stick to an ambition to be realistic and create a Mizrahi police officer working in the peripheries of Israeli society, and face the probability of being condemned to literary marginality?
Or in other words: Can Israeli culture accept a Mizrahi police officer as the protagonist of a serious realistic canonical detective series, meaning as one of its heroes, just as Holmes is a hero of British culture, as Inspector Maigret is a hero of French Literature and culture, and as Phillip Marlowe is an American hero?
Below, D. A. Mishani continues where he left off yesterday: wondering about the evolution of popular literary genres in Israel and why powerful people didn’t want “the detective” written at all.
Here is, for example, an important piece of evidence I found during my investigation: a fierce article written on detective fiction in a Hebrew newspaper in Palestine in the 1930’s, when the first translations of detective fiction to Hebrew were made (mainly to Sherlock Holmes stories) and the first original detective stories in Hebrew were written:
“Who is it that poisons the soul of our children with this so-called literature – arouses in them the most savage and hideous feelings? All over the Diaspora, songs are being sung for the children of the Land of Israel (Palestine) and their complete, healthy souls – and who is this that dares to damage them, to damage the pure and the innocent within them? And why isn’t there any public punishment for them? Aren’t we going to finally put an end to this filthy commerce, commerce in the souls of our children?”
The critic’s emphasis on the word “commerce” here is not innocent. I think it refers to the stereotypes of “Old” and “New” Jew – the first, the supposedly uprooted diasporic Jew, being concerned with money making, whilst the second, the new Palestinian Jew, the Hebrew, is concerned with curing the nation, physically as well as spiritually. By that time, in the early 1920’s, popular literature in general and detective fiction in particular were already wide-spread in Yiddish. In this sense, the translations of detective stories into Hebrew in Palestine were perceived as a threat to the purity of the Zionist Cultural Revolution.
It’s interesting to see that the defenders of detective fiction in this debate, whilst rejecting the arguments against the genre, used the same national terminology in order to promote it. Their argumentation relied on the contribution of detective fiction to the national project. Their main argument for introducing detective fiction into Hebrew literature referred to the genre’s possible contribution to the revival of modern Hebrew language. They noticed the popularity of detective fiction among Jewish readers in Yiddish and argued that in order to persuade Jewish youth to learn Hebrew, it was crucial to develop Hebrew detective fiction that would attract readers.
These arguments have marked the condition of detective fiction written or translated into Hebrew from that moment on, and maybe until this very day. This is the reason for the relatively few translations of foreign crime fiction, at least until recent years, and why I found myself, at the age of 11 or 12, in front of empty library shelves.
This is also the answer to the question I asked myself: How did I come to read The Hound of the Baskervilles at the age of 8 or 9? Detective fiction, even when it was translated, was classified as children’s fiction. Thus, until recently, Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories were published in Hebrew editions aimed at children – and most of the original detective fiction in Hebrew from the 1930’s until the late 1980’s was written for children or was considered children’s literature.
In fact, it was only in the late 1980’s that detective fiction really appeared in Hebrew adult fiction, namely in the form of two serial detective-novels written by two female authors, Batya Gur and Shulamit Lapid. Gur’s A Saturday Morning Murder, introducing police inspector Michael Ohayon, was first published in 1988, and Lapid’s Local Paper, introducing amateur sleuth Lizi Badihi, was first published in 1989. Both gained commercial success and some critical appreciation and both revealed the second problem of writing a detective novel in Israel – that is, the problem of the Mizrahi (or Sepharadi) protagonist.
So why is it so difficult to write a detective novel in Israel? Aren’t we supposed to be a literary culture that appreciates a sharp character who knows how to solve a riddle? And didn’t we produce one of the first recorded murder cases (that of Cain and Abel) and one of the first thrillers about an attempted murder prevented at the last moment (that of the Akeda)? As all detectives do, in order to solve the mystery I had to turn to history for some answers. And, in this case, it was the history of modern Hebrew literature.
I knew that modern Hebrew literature (i.e., literature in the modern and European sense, written not within liturgical or other religious contexts) began in the 18th century, in central and eastern Europe, mainly in what is today Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. During the 19th century many of the newly-born modern European literary forms immigrated into Hebrew literary writing. And, although from its beginnings it understood and described itself as a national literature—like the German or the French—modern Hebrew literature has developed under unique circumstances, unfamiliar to most other national literatures.
First and foremost, it developed out of an unspoken language, meaning a language that was not used for daily purposes and communication. Jews in Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century mainly used local languages and the different local versions of Yiddish, the language of European Jewish Diaspora. Hebrew was the sacred language of the Bible and some of the Talmudic texts, a language of Midrash (study) and of prayer, and therefore a language known to a limited social stratum.
Secondly, and partly because of this unique linguistic condition, modern Hebrew literature has developed in special economical circumstances. Hebrew readership, meaning the number of readers who could read Hebrew and were also interested in modern or “enlightened” Hebrew literature, consisted of just a few thousands of readers.
Thirdly, the development of modern Hebrew literature can not be understood separately from the Jewish national project, meaning from the birth and evolution of Zionist thought and action.
Those unique conditions, within which modern Hebrew literature has evolved, had considerable effects on the evolution of popular literary genres in Hebrew, notably on the detective story. Hebrew literature—defining itself as cultural and ideological avant-garde, against the popular and not always Zionist literary writing in Yiddish language—has rejected any form of writing that wasn’t national as unimportant and sometimes even destructive.
And the fate of the detective wasn’t different. Very powerful people didn’t want it written at all.
My fascination with detectives started very early on.
I remember that one of my strongest reading experiences as a child—when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old—was discovering with growing terror and amazement The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I was reading at night, in bed, under the blanket, and I knew I was intimidated by this strange character, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, even more than I was by the monstrous giant dog he was chasing.
And there’s another experience I remember very strongly:
I was 11 or 12 years old and I had already finished all the Agatha Christie novels available in the adult section of the municipal library in my home town, Holon, an urban suburb of Tel Aviv. I was standing in front of the library shelves that offered almost no other detective novels and asked myself: And now what? Are there really no other detectives in the world for me to read?
Many years later, as a young literary scholar pretending to write a PhD thesis on the detective novel, I found myself going back to these two important moments in my personal history of reading. This time I could ask myself the questions I couldn’t formulate as a child: How did I come to read the terribly horrifying story of the hound of the Baskervilles when I was only 8 years old? And why was it that the shelves in the municipal library in Holon offered no other detective novels after having finished all of Hercule Poirot’s investigations?
I understood then, that my own intimate history of reading, as a child in Israel in the 1980’s couldn’t be separated from the bigger social history of reading in Modern Hebrew. I was facing the mystery of the Hebrew detective, or the mystery of the detective in Hebrew: Why is it so difficult to write a detective in Hebrew?
And for me, at that moment in life, it wasn’t just a theoretical question, but a very personal one, almost a question of life and death, because secretly, without anybody knowing, I wasn’t going to finish my PhD thesis on the genre; instead, I was planning to write my own detective, in Hebrew. I was going to write the first investigation of police inspector Avraham Avraham.