The Big Schlep: Chabon’s Alaskan Lantzmen

By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 414 pages, $26.95

I’m not wild about hardboiled detective fiction. Raymond Chandler may paint a gritty world of hard-luck women, cigarettes and booze, but I still think he’s a lousy writer. Right now, perhaps because it’s spring, the word “hardboiled” calls to mind the eggs dipped in salt water at Pesach—an image with little sex appeal.

Michael Chabon’s new book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is definitely a detective story: semi-hardboiled, semi–police procedural, and making liberal use of typical features of both genres, such as suspenders and fedoras, sawed-off guns, curling smoke, Detroit muscle, wiseguys, a down-on-his-luck cop, and a crime that—if he solves it—might redeem him. Yet Mr. Chabon does for all of these what he did for 1930’s comic books in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay—idolizes, ironizes and gently lampoons them, making them larger than life, fascinating and once again fresh.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union takes place in an alternate present in which the state of Israel failed to thrive in Palestine. In the novel’s world, the Israeli experiment tanked in 1948, and the 1939 plan proposed by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes—to settle displaced European Jews in Alaska—actually came to pass. But on Jan. 1, 2008, the Federal District of Sitka will revert to U.S. rule. So the situation of the Sitka Jews in 2007 mirrors that of Jews at many times throughout the Diaspora: They consider the place they inhabit their home, but in fact are sojourners whose hosts might easily turn hostile.

Meyer Landsman is a Sitka homicide detective. Since divorcing his wife, Bina—who has now, by a twist of fate, become his commanding officer—he’s lived at the fleabag Hotel Zamenhof. The novel begins when the night manager discovers that the tenant in 208, a heroin addict who’s been calling himself Emanuel Lasker after the great Jewish chess hero, has been murdered. Because the murder happened in his own hotel, and because he has a lifelong aversion to chess (thanks to his father, a Holocaust survivor and chess player who forced the game on his son and later killed himself), Landsman gets involved in the case, despite the fact that, when the Sitka police force is remanded to the United States, all its open files will be marked “closed.” The addict turns out to have been Mendel Shpilman, the holy son of the powerful Verbover rebbe, a hulking titan of shady business interests. Landsman and his partner, the observant and half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, and Bina thus get involved in an investigation that takes them deep into corrupt Verbover territory, the Indianer lands, the story of Landsman’s sister’s mysterious death, and an international black-hat conspiracy so vast, sinister and believable, it puts The Da Vinci Code to shame.

Some of the pleasures of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union are, actually, distinctly Dan Brown–ish. Mr. Chabon often ends chapters with cliffhangers that might be tiresome in the hands of a lesser writer (say, Dan Brown). Here, they’re over-the-top suspenseful, savory and delicious.

The Big Schlep: Chabon’s Alaskan Lantzmen