What makes a good mystery? Sex and death — but shulattendance 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).