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.
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.