Last month I turned this blog over for a day to Uri Kenan, who offered a brief, eye-opening introduction to the history of crime fiction in Israel. Uri's back now to take the story from the 1980s until today, taking in along the way perhaps the only Israeli crime writer whose name many non-Israeli readers might recognize. Uri is an engineer for a Web-design company, but before that he compiled a résumé perfect for crime writing: "market research, journalism, documentary film production, private investigation (a lot more boring than it sounds), cooking, and managing a bar." He lives in Jaffa with his girlfriend and their two children, and he writes when he can.
© Peter Rozovsky 2012
By Uri Kenan
In the fifty years between the first appearance of detective fiction in Hebrew and its breakthrough into the mainstream of Israeli culture during the eighties, Israeli society had changed in ways that rendered it unrecognizable. Wars, waves of immigration, and ideological and generational shifts have shaped a society that is in constant conflict both internally and externally.
Mirroring this conflict, every decade since the sixties has seen the appearance of a literary wave trying to differentiate itself from previous ones and reshape Hebrew literature. In this way the old taboos about writing genre fiction were eventually viewed as outdated. This opened the door for change in attitude toward detective fiction, but it would take more than that. The true key to the critical and commercial success was to make the fractured nature of Israeli society the star.
Outside looking in
Due to their many successes in various wars and conflicts, the Israeli secret services, the Mossad and Shabak (General Security Service), have achieved international renown. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that in early attempts at Israeli detective and suspense fiction writers tried to cash in on these “brand names.” The first stories centering on Mossad agents had appeared during the seventies, but these were pulps and were written under pseudonyms.
In the early eighties Amnon Dankner, who wrote the political thriller Al Tiru Banasi (Don’t Shoot the President) was the first writer to publish Israeli suspense fiction under his own name. He was soon followed by Amnon Jackont with the spy novel Pesek Z’man (Translated as Borrowed Time), and the way was paved for scores of spy thrillers focusing on the Israeli intelligence community. None of these, however, has achieved the commercial and critical success of the Michael Ohayon and Lizzy Badihi novels, by Batya Gur and Shulamit Lapid respectively.
Saturday Morning Murder, which appeared in 1988 was Batya Gur’s first novel and it introduced her most enduring creation: Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon. Ohayon, a quiet, sensitive man who seems more intellectual than policeman, would traverse through the course of six novels into one closed community after another, interpreting their cultural norms and taboos on the way to solving the case.
Ranging from the psychiatric community and the academia to the kibbutz, from the world of classical musicians to the ethnic tension in a Jerusalem neighborhood and the backstage of a television channel, Gur’s subjects were communities trying to maintain their identities against outside forces while serving as stages for internal struggles. As it matured, Gur’s work became increasingly political. Her resentment towards Israeli policies in the occupied territories as well as her frustration with discrimination in Israeli society featured more and more prominently. Her last novel, Murder in Jerusalem, was a critique of Zionism and Israel society after the crash of the peace process in 2000. Batya Gur died in 2005, aged 57.
Shulamit Lapid was already an established writer when her first Lizi Badihi novel appeared. Contrary to a considerable amount of Israeli literature and film, which centers on Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, Lapid used the city of Beersheba in the Negev desert as the setting for her novels.
Badihi, a reporter for a local newspaper (a trend introduced to Israel in the 80s), was a lanky, clumsy bachelorette with a nose for a story and a natural dogged curiosity that would not back down from threats. Beersheba, normally sleepy town, appears in the Badihi novels as a battleground for passion, greed and revenge. In describing this microcosm, where everyone knows everyone else, Lapid makes use of anthropological insights, humor and even surrealism. From the ongoing rivalry of Badihi with her two police detective brothers in law to her mother’s constant attempts to get her married, from the hippies in of the remote Negev villages to the powerful bureaucrats of Beersheba’s elite Lapid’s novels are never short of color.
Ohayon and Badihi have much in common. Both are perpetual outsiders in their communities, unable to find their proper place except when busy investigating. Echoing one of the most recurrent sources of tension of Israeli society, both protagonists are Sephardic Jews created by Ashkenazi writers. In that sense they are not only tools for exploring the surrounding communities but themselves the subjects of investigations by the writers.
Gur and Lapid are the first names in Israeli crime fiction but far from the only ones. Yair Lapid, the son of Shulamit Lapid and an established Israeli publicist in his own right, has also published several detective novels; his Josh Shirman detective series is the most faithful attempt so far to bring Raymond Chandler’s style to an Israeli setting. Adiva Geffen has written suspense novels that combine detective mysteries with elements of romance. It’s also more common, these days, to encounter Israeli writers and poets who publish one-off attempts at detective fiction.
In Israel, the late eighties were filled with a spirit of change, not merely in literature but throughout Israeli culture. Post-Zionism, the critical analysis of Zionist ideology and practice, became more and more prevalent in academic circles. The most outspoken proponents of this view belonged to a group labeled “The New Historians” who challenged almost every aspect of Zionist historical narrative sparking a heated, emotional debate. This new awareness of the past led to a new appraisal of the past as subject for genre fiction.
The first historical whodunit to appear in Hebrew was Adonis, by the poet and writer Arieh Sivan. The novel, published in 1991, takes place sixty years earlier, around the time of David Tidhar and “Sifriyat Habalsah (Detective Series),” has become a cult favorite in recent years, but only after several years of going virtually unnoticed.
Towards the end of that decade, several more novels focusing on the period of the British Mandate in Palestine appeared. Boaz Apelbaum, who had been former Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ chief of staff, wrote under the heading of the nostalgic detective. A few years later, Ram Oren, one of Israel’s most popular suspense authors, published several historical novels set around the same time period.
In 2002, Amnon Dankner published The Boneless, a mystery novel that jumps from late-nineteenth-century Paris, where the idea of Zionism was first taking shape, to twenty-first-century Jerusalem, where “new” and “old” historians are bickering over the results of this idea. A series of murders links the eras and ties the story together.
Detective, crime and suspense fiction has gone from hidden, guilty pleasure to legitimate voice in popular Israeli fiction. It has done so by the processes most outcast cultural forms go through when breaking into the mainstream: tapping into the social and cultural zeitgeist and reflecting it in new and original ways. That is not much of a mystery. What the success of crime and suspense fiction says about Israeli culture and society is, arguably, more revealing.
Despite the image it projects, both to the world and inward, Israeli culture and society is far from uniform. It is, rather, a continuous battleground for competing narratives. In the early days of Israel this competition could be relegated to a minor role because of the demands of the Israeli melting-pot project and the threat posed by the outside Arab world. Over time the narratives became more focused and sought for a place at center stage.
The more overt this struggle has become, the more traction and legitimacy detective fiction has gathered. It is has given readers peeks at the various Israeli subgroups and, in some cases, a voice to those less often heard. The trend of historical detective fiction can be viewed as a nostalgic reaction, a yearning for “simpler days” when everyone knew his or her place, or else as a genuine attempt to reevaluate the past, in light of current ambiguities.
(In writing this article I relied upon the many written eulogies to Batya Gur as well as several of her interviews. I have also relied on Interviews reviews and biographical Information about Shulamit Lapid, Amnon Jackont, Amnon Dankner, Arieh Sivan, Boaz Aplebaum and Ram Oren as well as ,off course, their novels. As with the first post I would also like to thank Nir Yaniv and Lior Oryan for their valuable input.)
(Read Part 1 of A Short History of Crime Fiction in Israel.)
Labels: Amnon Dankner, Amnon Jackont, Arieh Sivan, A short history of crime fiction in Israel, Batya Gur, David Tidhar, historical crime fiction, history, Israel, Israel crime fiction, Ram Oren, Shulamit Lapid, Uri Kenan