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.
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.
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.