The Yiddish Policemen’s Union seemed like a perfect choice for my next read because it involves two of my great loves: alternate history stories and hardboiled detective fiction. For the most part, I enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The setting was very well thought out and engaging: The area around Sitka, Alaska, was used to create a temporary home for Jewish refugees during World War II, and became more or less the largest concentration of Jews in the world after the state of Israel failed in 1948. Now, however, the handwriting is on the wall and Reversion, the return of the settlement to Alaskan control, is looming, causing great uncertainty and upheaval.
The protagonist is one Meyer Landsman. Landsman was a great homicide detective until he and his wife – also a cop – divorced following the medically necessary termination of a pregnancy. Landsman couldn’t handle either the loss of the child or the loss of his wife, and is now a broken shell of a man living in alcoholism and despair in a sleazy hotel. When one of Landsman’s fellow losers turns up shot to death, he becomes personally affronted that someone would be murdered in his hotel and begins to struggle to put the pieces together.
Complications rapidly ensue – the ex-wife, who was formerly posted out of town, returns and becomes his superior officer; the dead man is the son of a local crime lord and was formerly believed to be the potential Messiah; and Landsman’s sister, dead in an accident, maybe didn’t die so accidentally after all. Hovering over it all is the specter of the Reversion and the Jews’ mad scramble to figure out whether they’ll be allowed to stay or forced out into a new Diaspora.
If that sounds like a lot, it is, but Chabon handles it all smoothly. The novel ticks along, hitting all the right noirish notes, as Landsman stumbles around, seemingly always one step behind the bad guys, swinging wildly back and forth between alcoholic despair and the desire to show his colleagues – and his ex-wife – that he’s done with being a fuckup.
The thing that irked me a bit was the ending (and here come the spoilers, so beware). It just seemed too neat. Landsman solves the case, he gets his ex-wife back, he kicks the bottle, he unearths the conspiracy — and boy, is it a humdinger of a conspiracy, too. Practically every inch of this guy’s life to date is steeped in failure, in loss, in death, in suicide (successful or attempted) and yet he pulls it all out in the end? Really? To say the least, I found the ending unconvincing and a bit of a letdown. It was like Chabon decided he needed to put a sugar coating on a bitter pill, but rather than making me feel better it just turned my stomach. (I realize that most people may not have the hunger for bleakness in crime fiction that I do, so this may not be an issue for some of you. But there it is.)