08 March 2009
Review: The Yiddish Policemen's Union
The Yiddish Policemen's Union is set in a world where the nation of Israel did not survive war with its Arab neighbors, but the US did provide Jewish refugees with a colony in Alaksa. This colony, which exists as a semi-autonomous region, has opted for Yiddish instead of Hebrew as the official language. As the novel begins, Sitka is also only a few weeks away from reversion, when it will return to US jurisdiction and all of its residents will have to find new places to live. (US citizenship or residency status being difficult to obtain.)
For homicide detective Meyer Landsman, this means a new imperative to resolve all the existing cases before reversion comes around. And as he is informed by his ex-wife and new commanding officer, said resolution can be either through solving the case or marking it as unsolvable. Which puts him into something of a bind, as he's recently acquired a new case that he may neither be able to solve nor willing to let go of. The junkie who was murdered execution-style in his own hotel room would not normally be a top priority for Landsman, but since the fleabag flophouse the junkie was killed in happens to be Landsman's residence as well, he's taking it a bit personally.
Landsman's investigation takes him through several strata of the Sitka's diaspora community, from a humble Phillipino doughnut shop to the highest reaches of the social and criminal worlds. Chabon creates a complex and plausible world, imagintively detailed. I especially liked his use of language, where Hebrew and Yiddish words have morphed into slang, providing the novel with its own unique style of pulp dialogue. (I could mostly pick up their meanings from context; if dealing with unfamiliar words intimidates you, there are some editions that feature a glossary.) The mystery turns out to be rather on the grand side, to the extent that the resolution threw the novel a little of balance, but most of the investigation and its exploration of all the different ins and outs of the invented community was quite fascinating.