RogerBW's Blog

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon 08 July 2018

2007 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning alternate-world noir. In 1940, refugee Jews from Europe were granted a temporary homeland in Alaska; sixty years later it's about to be handed back to the USA. But for homicide detective Meyer Landsman, that can't get in the way of solving the latest murder.

I think that the basic problem with this book, for me, is very much the same as often happens when a successful literary-fiction author deigns to dip their toe into mere genre: Chabon has one solid idea (in this case, "what if we had a noir murder mystery, but they're all Jews?"), and he thinks that that one idea is enough to carry the entire book.

He mostly doesn't infodump the alternate history, though there are lots of flashbacks; but this ends up meaning that it doesn't get talked about much at all. The Slattery Report really did recommend settling refugee Jews in Alaska to get round immigration quotas, but it got essentially no support from Jews or non-Jews. Here, Anthony Dimond the delegate from Alaska died in a car accident rather than preventing a key vote, and the proposal went through. Well, that's fine; quite how it means that the Germans beat the Soviets in 1942, Berlin was destroyed by nuclear weapons in 1946, and the state of Israel was completely erased after three months of existence… who knows? Chabon probably doesn't, and he certainly isn't going to tell you.

He is, however, in love with the sound of his own voice. This isn't so much overwritten as all froth and no beer. Here's a minor background character:

An old man, pushing himself like a rickety hand cart, weaves a course toward the door of the hotel. A short man, under five feet, dragging a large valise. Landsman observes the long white coat, worn open over a white suit with a waistcoat, and the wide brimmed white hat pulled down over his ears. A white beard and sidelocks, wispy and thick at the same time. The valise an ancient chimera of stained brocade and scratched hide. The whole right side of the man's body sags five degrees lower than the left, where the suitcase, which must contain the old boy's entire collection of lead ingots, weighs it down. The man stops and raises a finger, as if he has a question to pose of Landsman. The wind toys with the man's whiskers and with the brim of his hat. From his beard, arm pits, breath, and skin, the wind plucks a rich smell of stale tobacco and wet flannel and the sweat of a man who lives in the street. Landsman notes the color of the man's antiquated boots, yellowish ivory, like his beard, with sharp toes and buttons running up the sides.

Which is fine, but none of that is ever going to matter. And the whole thing is like that. The plot, such as it is, should be no surprise to anyone who was watching American culture after 2001; there's no mystery for the reader to solve, as characters wander up and hand Landsman chunks of the answer for no obvious reason. The noir is half-hearted (Kim Newman did it better), the alternate history is skimmed over or in casual references (Welles got to make his film of Heart of Darkness that in our world was interrupted by the war, but nobody talks about what it's like, just that it exists), and the characters are too busy standing for types to be people in themselves.

Read for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

I did wonder why SF readers went for this, but then I saw the rest of the nominees for the 2008 awards. Stross' Halting State (4th place) is quite decent, though it's not Hugo-worthy to my mind; I found Scalzi's The Last Colony (2nd) pretty dire; and I hadn't even heard of Robert J. Sawyer's Rollback (3rd) or Ian McDonald's Brasyl (5th). And the voting was fairly close.

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