Frum Fiction: Observant Gumshoes Master ABCs of Murder

By Zackary Sholem Berger

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

What makes a good mystery? Sex and death — but shul attendance and Sabbath observance don’t hurt either. That’s right: Orthodox Judaism has entered the world of detective fiction.

There have been Jewish mysteries before, of course. Take Harry Kemelman’s haymish, if low-intensity, series of mystery novels featuring the Conservative Rabbi David Small, a 35-year success, or Michael Ohayon, the Jerusalem chief police inspector in the Hebrew thrillers of Batya Gur, which have attracted more and more fans in the past decade.

But now there’s a crop of gumshoes who aren’t rabbis but don’t take calls on Saturday — and please don’t be offended if they won’t eat in your kitchen.

Rochelle Krich’s new mystery, “Dream House” (Ballantine), is her second featuring Molly Blume. (The detective explains more than once that she is not named after James Joyce’s famous “Ulysses” character.) Blume is a Los Angeles journalist who covers the crime beat — and someone whose curiosity, driven in part by the unsolved murder of a childhood best friend, makes her unable to stop thinking about the crimes she copies off the police blotter for her column. But Friday evening sees a different Blume, ensconced in the warmth of her extended family, sampling her mother’s kugel and her grandmother’s Holocaust stories. She’s seeing a rabbi, too — though Zach Abrams, the congregation’s heartthrob, wasn’t exactly frum when they dated for the first time, back in high school.

Blume is smart, sexy, modestly dressed (most of the time) and acutely aware of the limits placed (and the benefits granted) by her observance. Both detective and creator are sharp observers of the daily but rewarding awkwardness of the more stringent variety of Modern Orthodoxy; Blume flirts with, but would never dream of dating, the Irish Catholic detective who is her main police source. When a witness offers her some brownies warm from the oven, she politely demurs.

While Blume grew up observant, L.A. cop Peter Decker, a creation of longtime bestseller Faye Kellerman, calls himself a “convert to Judaism.” Though a Jew by birth, he had to become Modern Orthodox (though less stringently than Molly Blume) in order to marry the love of his life (and sometime fellow crime-solver) Rina Lazarus. But in Kellerman’s recent “Stone Kiss” (Warner), he’s thrust into a world where washing before Hamotzi is the least of his worries (though it does come up). A distant relative, one of the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Quinton (a thinly disguised Monsey, N.Y.), has been found shot to death in a hotel room, naked. His niece has disappeared. Despite Decker’s better judgment, he heads east to help.

Kellerman’s blood-and-concrete portrait of New York gives new meaning to the phrase “you wouldn’t want to live there.” It’s not a nice place to visit, either. On his search for the killer, and the murdered man’s niece, Decker takes a whirlwind tour of New York’s many underbellies: chasidic drug-running, rural stripper-ogling and psychotic crime-lord-consulting — with longtime nemesis Chris Donatti, whom Decker needs but also wishes were dead. The sex and violence in this book, while frequently mentioned, are not so much committed as brooded on — which gives Kellerman a chance to trace the intersection of crime, morality and religion. If Blume’s frumkayt is a solace she has grown up with, Decker’s is a battlefield on which his inner conflicts are played out.

How can children grow up to be frum sleuths? They could follow the example of Devora Doresh, the teenage hero of Carol Korb Hubner’s mysteries, who solves crimes with hard-earned cheder knowledge. She even has an admirer she will never date, Sergeant O’Malley of the local police.

Whether it’s Devora’s chumash lessons, Molly Blume’s panicked, Friday-afternoon witness-chasing or the conflicted observance of Peter Decker, these crime-solvers pack a wallop along with their prayerbooks. Though it’s not a mitzvah to read them, it’s certainly worthwhile.

Zackary Sholem Berger is the translator of “Di Kats der Payats, The Cat in the Hat in Yiddish” (Twenty-Fourth Street Books, www.yiddishcat.com).






Find us on Facebook!
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.