The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Extra features: The audiobook includes an interview with Michael Chabon about his inspiration for the book, his favorite books and genres, and his writing process.
Short Review: Chabon’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning alternate history of a world without Israel but with a temporary Jewish homeland in Sitka, Alaska. Hard-boiled detective Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a junkie chess-player with his partner and cousin Berko Shemets, a half-Tlingit, half-Jewish cop who is a good father, a good Jew, and a good partner trying to save Landsman from himself. As the case progresses, more and more connections to organized crime, shady US government machinations, separatist Orthodox communities, and zealotry reveal themselves. Riegert is an ideal reader, comfortable with accents, Yiddish, noir, and sadness.
Long Review: I love this book. I read it on paper first, and was anxious to hear how well Reigert would handle Landsman’s voice. He does a masterful job. The book is written in the third person, but Landsman is on just about every page, so we hear his speech over and over. Reigert is careful to give Lansman, Berko Shemetz, and the other major characters distinct voices and rhythms, and he does a very good job of it. Like all of the best audiobook readers I’ve heard, Riegert balances acting with diction; maintaining a good rhythm and drawing a complete character while also keeping his accented speech easy to understand.
The novel is set in Sitka, Alaska in an alternate history. In the world of the novel, Israel fell to Arab attack in 1948, and the US agreed to make a temporary semi-autonomous federal district in Sitka for Jewish refugees. Sitka’s term of independence is ending, and all of the Jewish refugees there must prepare to leave for new homes elsewhere. As the local police are wrapping up their case files to hand over to the Americans, a junkie is murdered in the hotel where Landsman lives and Landsman takes the case. He should file the case away as quickly as possible but can’t let it go. The deeper Landsman investigates the victim and his connections, the more entangled he becomes.
Chabon writes wonderful characters, in this and all of his novels. Landsman, his ex-wife and boss Bina, Berko Shemetz, and the rest of the characters in the novel are engaging and deep and fascinating. You root for Landsman, but you also want to strangle him. Riegert’s narration intensifies that connection to Landsman and the rest. I found myself worrying about them all while listening to the novel, even though I already knew what was coming next.
Chabon does amazing things with language and speech in this novel. I’m no expert on Yiddish, of course, but I love the way Chabon intertwines Yiddish with noir phrasing and settings. It flips the whole hard-boiled detective genre–in a good way. I doubt there will ever be a sequel, but I would absolutely love the chance to follow Landsman and Shemetz on another case.
All in all, this is a fascinating, entertaining, beautifulky-read audiobook and one I know I’ll return to.