Israeli Mysteries

The mystery has spatially diffused to many cultures around the globe since Poe's invention of the genre and one of the last recipients was Israel. Although founded in 1948, the mystery did appear in near-clandestine form in the Jewish settlements in the 1930s. The form was children's literature, written mainly by schoolteachers in Hebrew for students in Hebrew schools. Frowned upon by adults and especially parents, booklets featuring Tidhar were extremely popular among Israeli youth. There was, however, no place in mainstream literature for non-canonical or trivial literature in a community that was establishing a new Zionist ideology and promoting a set of national values.

In the early 1950s, after the formal creation of the State of Israel, many classical, western mystery writers were translated into Hebrew including Doyle, Christie, and others. There was even a very popular juvenile series entitled Hasambah by Yigal (Igol) Mossinsohn (Mossensohn). The main, respectable body of literature, however, was devoid of crime fiction.

By the 1980s legitimate detective fiction (sipur habalash) roared onto the scene in Israel and has bloomed vigorously ever since. The Israeli state had clearly become secure and mature enough to deal with domestic crime and other social pathologies. This new wave of mysteries is sophisticated and of very high quality. It is characterized by writers of all types: those who specialize in crime fiction as well as established main stream novelists and even poets. The Israeli mystery is a very well developed "novelized" literature and is far from the formulaic, puzzle-oriented type of mystery. It has become a distinctive form of literary work with a tendency to broaden the genre and expand its boundaries to focus on character and theme development. Most mystery writers employ the genre as a very sensitive mirror to reflect social, political and demographic strains in the country.

Most Israeli mystery authors write in Hebrew and, unfortunately, are not available to the English language reader. One of the best known today is Batya Gur. Her detective, Michael Ohayon, is a complex intellectual and a somewhat morose policeman who is Sephardi, a relative outsider in Israeli society. Her novels are superbly crafted and most are available in English (The Saturday Morning Murder: a Psychoanalytic Case, Harper Collins, 1988; Murder on a Kibbutz: a Communal Case, Harper Collins, 1994; Literary Murder: a Critical Case, Harper Perennial, 1994). Shulamit Lapid is a remarkably popular writer who has created a funny, somewhat unsophisticated local journalist who solves interesting crimes but also gives the reader a peek into everyday news issues via her reporting. Her books include (all her work is in Hebrew), Local Paper (Keter, 1989) and Bait (Keter, 1991). Her novels are set in Beersheva. Another popular author is Ora Shem-Or. Her female sleuth, a romance novel translator, works and solves crimes in Tel Aviv. Her books (again, only in Hebrew) include Murder in a Singles' Club (Noga, Tel Aviv, 1991) and Murder on Sheinken Street (Noga, Tel Aviv, 1992).

Robert Rosenberg, although born in the U.S. and an English language author, has lived in Tel Aviv since 1973 and writes a very high quality police procedural series featuring Avram Cohen. The stories are set in Jerusalem and are remarkably place sensitive. There are now four books in the series including Crimes of the City (Simon and Schuster, 1991) the first and, in my opinion, the very best, The Cutting Room, (Simon and Schuster, 1993), House of Guilt (Scribner, 1996), and An Accidental Murder (Scribner, 1999).

There are a large number of other mystery writers who are unfortunately unavailable in English. Ruth Almog and Esther Ettinger (the latter a well known poet) have penned a mystery focused on murder in the Hebrew University library that spotlights a variety of academic types (A Perfect Lover, Keter, 1995). An English excerpt is available in Modern Hebrew Literature, Fall/Winter, 1996, pages 11-12. Aryeh Sivan, an author of eight poetry collections, has published a very literary-political mystery of note (Adonis, Am Oved, 1992) in which the crime remains unsolved. It is a very innovative piece of work. Yoram Kaniuk, a prominent fiction writer has recently published Tigerhill (Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, 1995) a mystery of great substance (an excerpt in English is available in Modern Hebrew Literature, Fall/Winter, 1996, pages 6-8). Other contemporary writers include Ram Oren, a hard-boiled type writer (Seduction, Keter, 1994; The Mark of Cain, Keter,1996; Framed, Keter, 1995),Yoav Levitas Halevy ( The Ransom, Sifriat Ma'ariv, 1995), Amnon Jacont (Honey Trap, Keter, 1994), and Limor Nachmias (Mother Used to Creep, Keter, 1995).

The crime novel is truly alive and well in Israel and has become a genre that is hardly trivial but rather very creative and worthy of a large readership. Unfortunately much too much of it is not available in languages other than Hebrew, depriving the world of a first class body of crime fiction. Publishers take note!


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