Sara 's Reviews > The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
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's review
Mar 27, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: book-club-sf-fantasy, alternate-history, science-fiction, mysteries-cool-settings
Read in April, 2012

This was certainly an interesting book. I read it and also listened to some parts on audio--it was helpful hear the unfamiliar words in the audio version but easier to follow quick, snappy dialogue when reading the text.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is set in an alternate history in which a Jewish state was temporarily set up in Sitka, Alaska in the 40s. The book is set in the first decade of the 2000s, when the district is about to revert to full Alaskan control, leaving Sitka's Jewish settlers with an uncertain future. So, the story has a definite end-of-days feel, with everyone worried about what comes next and where they'll be allowed to settle. The characters are getting depressed and desperate, and that's at the heart of the plot.

The plot revolves around a murder that occurs in a run-down hotel that also happens to be the home a down-on-his-luck policeman, Meyer Landsman. Meyer, an alcoholic whose personal life is in shambles, takes a personal interest in the case. The victim was a chess player, and Landsman's family has a difficult and complex history regarding the game. This detail of the case makes Landsman feel compelled to investigate, even though everyone tries to dissuade him. The secretive crime community of Jewish fundamentalists threatens him. Meyer's new supervisor, who also happens to be his ex-wife, has been told to complete cases and not investigate new ones.

But Meyer is a classic hard-boiled detective, headstrong and flippant, and he won't listen to threats, nor will he stop even if he's threatened, shot, kidnapped... Meyer will find out what happened to the junkie who was found dead in his hotel no matter what. The case isn't simple, and it ties into something much larger, something that could have far-reaching consequences. Landsman gets into all kinds of crazy situations, sometimes on his own and sometimes with his partner on the force, a half-Jewish, half-Alaskan native who is also Landsman's cousin. The family history of Landsman and his cousin Berko is also intricately tied in with the murder case.

Anyway. Don't want to give too much of this compicated plot away, but it's full of twists and turns. Landsman meets (or catches up with) many unusual and interesting people in the course of his investigation. Most characters are damaged in some way, hoping for some sort of deliverance from their burdens. There's definitely a lot of bleakness to the book, but there's some dark humor there too. Descriptions of this strange imagined culture (which has plenty of real-life basis) and of the hopes and despairs of its people are often downright poetic. You want Landsman to succeed and to come to a better place personally, but from the tone of the book you know that answers and solutions aren't going to come easy or cheap. All in all, this was a satisfyingly complex and thought-provoking sci-fi/mystery/alt-history.
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