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?