A Critical Case

A new reissue of Batya Gur's oeuvre offers a welcome opportunity to revisit the founding mother of Israeli detective fiction.

“Do you read a lot of thrillers?”
No, only sometimes, when she couldn’t fall sleep.
“And what do they do to you?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” she asked, placing her hands on her lap to keep them from trembling.
He meant, said Michael innocently, what made her interested in them, what attracted her to this kind of literature.
She wasn’t a violent type, if that’s what he meant, she said. He shrugged his shoulders, as if to say that he hadn’t meant anything in particular.
Her interest was psychological, she said.
“Ah, psychological,” he said.

—Batya Gur, Saturday Morning Murder

Together with Shulamit Lapid, creator of the Lizzy Badihi thriller series, the teacher and  literary critic Batya Gur was “almost single-handedly responsible for making the detective novel a flourishing genre in Israeli letters,” Margalit Fox wrote in the New York Times following her death in May 2005. Her Michael Ohayon series of police procedurals also made Gur the first Israeli detective fiction writer to be widely read in the English-speaking world (thanks in no small part to Dalya Bilu, whose deft translations capture the measured pace and cerebral, slightly old-fashioned tenor of Gur’s prose). In 2020, Gur’s American publisher, Harper Paperbacks, reissued all six Michael Ohayon volumes. High time, then, for a reconsideration of her contribution to Israeli literature.

As Naomi Sokoloff argued in an article for the journal Shofar, until the late 1980s and early 1990s detective fiction or police procedurals were not taken seriously as a literary genre in Israel. Hebrew-language crime fiction was until then a form of pulp fiction: disposable, published on cheap paper, with no literary merit of which to speak. Ze’ev Jabotinsky believed that detective novels could help improve Hebrew literacy as a kind of accessible and readable fiction. But Sokoloff writes that critics were of another opinion, believing detective fiction to be beneath Hebrew literature and the language, deemed too “elevated and refined” and “serious an enterprise for the purposes of murder mysteries.”

Domestically-produced pulp fiction notwithstanding, until Gur and Lapid, a good deal of the detective fiction available in Hebrew was in fact translations of English and American works. Changing attitudes towards detective fiction in Israel was part of the country’s ever-increasing openness to American or English-language culture—what Solokoff calls the “Americanization of Israel” through cable television, commercial products, and so on. Not only Israeli detective novels, but also “thrillers, suspense novels, romances, and melodramas” written by Israeli writers all had their place on the bestseller lists in 1990s Israel and began to be reviewed in newspapers like Haaretz. Such books “left a noticeable mark on contemporary Israeli culture.”

More so than literary fiction, genre writing like detective fiction and the murder mystery borrow themes, forms, and certain tropes from the novels that preceded them, and the influence of Anglo-American detective fiction on Gur is obvious. Her Michael Ohayon series could not exist without her Jerusalem-based detective’s English-language forebears: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Her settings, too, closed communities in parochial Jerusalem, are also key to good detective fiction—what David Lehman once described in The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection as “a place that runs on its own clocks, able to keep the world at large from encroaching on its privileged boundaries.” As Oxford was to Morse, so Jerusalem is to Ohayon.

But her novels are more than mere plot vehicles—and indeed, if there is a critique to be made of some of the stories in the series, it is that plot, the thing one reads detective fiction for, is subservient to the other demands that Gur places upon her novels. Were they all surface and story, Gur could not be credited with having elevated detective fiction to a position of respectability in the Israeli world of letters.

The Ohayon books are explorations of the inner workings of pockets of the upper echelon of Israeli society and of the human mind—of how, to quote Lehman, “our working and social lives provide us countless opportunities for closed murders.” Her novels, Fox wrote in her obituary, “were less about the death of the body than they were sustained, thoughtful explorations of the life of the mind.” More than a whodunnit, the question at hand in Gur’s work is less often “who?” than “why?”. Her books are literary enquiries and intellectual exercises—a form through which the dynamics of certain subsets of Israeli society, their particularities and peculiarities, can be probed and explored.

Gur’s great achievement as a writer was to use this imported form to fashion something distinctly Israeli.

*

Saturday Morning Murder—which begins with the death of Dr. Eva Neidorf, who had been due to deliver a lecture at the Jerusalem Psychoanalytic Society—introduces the reader to Chief Inspector Michael Ohayon, 38, deputy head of the Investigations Division of the Jerusalem Subdistrict. (As the series continues, Ohayon is promoted first to Superintendent, then Chief Superintendent.) “I am Michael Ohayon in a woman’s body,” Gur once said. “He grew like me, slowly and laboriously, until he found his place.”

On first glance, we learn of his “personal charm,” in the words of his direct superior officer, and of his “broad, rosy-checked face” which one would “in no way associate with the occupation” Ohayon had chosen—an angel among devils, perhaps. He eschews superstition, drinks Turkish coffee with three spoons of sugar, and smokes Noblesse cigarettes “made of cheap Virginia tobacco” with alarming frequency. (Gur herself was a smoker and died aged 57 of lung cancer. When, in later book, Ohayon engages in the struggle to give up his Noblesse, his life once more mirrors that of his creator.)

Ohayon lives in a basement flat, “open to the air and the view of the green hills and distant houses,” on a hillside in Givat Mordechai. Ohayon’s first marriage was to Nira, the only daughter of a diamond merchant. The union, which began when he was but a second-year university student, ended in divorce. Their son, Yuval, six at the time his parents split, is portrayed as something of rebellious latchkey kid, Ohayon consumed more by work than child-rearing. After Nira came a long-term relationship with Maya, a woman Ohayon has spent the last five years of his life trying to break up with, as theirs is a relationship without a viable future.

With a masters’ degree in medieval history, Ohayon was on track to take up a doctoral research position at Cambridge. But the offer coincided with the end of his marriage; this life-changing event pushed him towards detective work in search of financial security. Turning down the offer of a teaching assistantship due to the low pay, he took a job with the police. As his years attached to the Major Crimes Unit in Jerusalem piled up, “the subject of his PhD grew more and more remote.” It is perhaps for this reason that Ohayon sometimes has something of a dissatisfied air about him. One can never be quite sure if he enjoys his detective work or not.

Ohayon, then, is not that kind of policeman—coarse, sarcastic, malevolent—and yet he remains an archetype of detective fiction: the mercurial outsider. (Gur too, one might say, was a kind of outsider in her cloistered field of literature and literary criticism: the child of Holocaust survivors who was a high school English teacher before Saturday Morning Murder was published when Gur was 39.) Gur’s twist with Ohayon is to emphasize his distinctiveness by making him Mizrahi. Ohayon was born in Morocco and came to Israel when he was three years old. His first language was Moroccan Arabic; he learnt Hebrew only after his arrival. Orphaned at a young age, for six years he lived in what is described as an “institution,” a boarding school for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bayit VeGan.

When he married into Nira’s wealthy Ashkenazi family, he became something of a “project” for his father-in-law who pitied and patronized his daughter’s husband. (Certainly, that was Ohayon’s experience: “If he was poor and Moroccan, then at least let him be a professor, as Michael flung at Nira when she pressed him to accept her parents’ help.”) This superiority-inferiority dynamic that was, then, at the root of he and his wife’s marital discord. Ohayon’s Mizrahi identity is certainly made explicit, yet it only quietly informs his work and Ashkenazi-Mizrahi relations is not a theme of Gur’s detective novels. It is more that, when a character in Murder on a Kibbutz opines that no outsider could possibly penetrate the kibbutz, for example, the reader understands Gur’s precise meaning.

This is one part of Ohayon’s otherness; the other, his cerebral quality and curiosity, also manifests in his working methods. Gur outlines this in Saturday Morning Murder, as a suspect connected to the Jerusalem Psychoanalytic Society explains the ins and outs of the institute to the detective:

“The reaction that Gold usually got to the kind of information he had just given the policeman was almost invariably a mixture of astonishment, incredulity, and mirth. When he explained about the duration and nature of the Institute training to people he called “outsiders,” the questions came first, and then the jokes, equally predictable. … But not Ohayon. He did not make a single sarcastic remark or joke, he expressed no astonishment—only pure and simple interest. He tried to come to grips with the subject and understand it, and that was all.”

Ohayon has what he privately calls his “historical need” to “obtain a full picture, to see everything concerning human beings as part of an overall process, like a historical process possessing laws of its own, which—he never tired of explaining—if only we are able to grasp their meaning, provide us with the tools for going right to the heart of the problem.” His goal as a detective, he explains to his colleagues, is to “penetrate as deeply as possible into the emotional and intellectual world under investigation,” to first understand the people involved in the case in order to then get to the bottom of what happened: to “start slowly, with a kind of theoretical introduction, and speed things up, as much as possible, only later,” Gur writes.

Here, Gur at once explains both Ohayon’s methods and the essence of the first four of her detective novels, Saturday Morning Murder, The Literary Murder, Murder on a Kibbutz, and Murder Duet. She is as interested in what the act can do to a tightly-knit community as in the act itself:  the creation of disturbance, the feeling that a murder will destroy the inner life of a community, people’s sense of belonging to it, and whether its members will be able to go on living and working together afterwards.

Only by coming to terms with the community he is dealing with—its interpersonal relationships, power structures, and the moral, political and/or intellectual code by which it operates—can Ohayon then get to the heart of the matter. This format makes for stories replete with long discussions about psychoanalysis, literature, and music—less racy, pacey, and bloody than many detective thrillers (Kingsley Amis once remarked he would refuse to read another book that did not begin with the words, “A shot rang out.” Gur’s work would not appeal.) What Gur achieves, Solokoff explains, is the subsumption of abstract discourse and discussion “into the narrative flow of the detective genre; that is, into the plot that relies on order and suspense.”

This synthesis is perhaps clearest in the first three novels, set respectively in a psychoanalytic institute, the Hebrew University’s literature department, and a kibbutz. (The fourth, concerning two murdered musicians within the same family, suffers from its length and a baggy B-plot involving the good detective and an abandoned baby.) The Literary Murder opens with a contentious departmental seminar, during which its head, Shaul Tirosh, is subjected to a verbal attack by a young scholar called Iddo Dudai. Both are dead within the first fifty pages or so: first Dudai, who dies while scuba diving in Eilat; then the professor, discovered in his office days after his murder. The double murder, of course, brings Ohayon onto the scene.

Gur’s detective must grapple with Tirosh’s trail of destruction, the stuff of a long academic career. “There are students he tormented and women he had affairs with, and their husbands, and poets and writers he humiliated, and there are dozens of people who would have been only too happy to see him dead,” a colleague of Tirosh’s declares to the detective in frustration. Eli Bahar, an inspector with the Major Crimes Unit, also wonders about his political opinions and associations with Peace Now. But none of this is really the point.

The road to resolution comes with Ohayon comprehending the values by which this small but passionate academic community operates. He conducts lengthy, rather systematic interviews with the members of the department. He attends a lecture held by Tirosh’s colleague, Tuvia Shai. He follows a lead that links Tirosh to Shira, the posthumously-published unfinished novel by S.Y. Agnon—a link that is never quite explained. His inquiries also take him to the United States, where Dudai’s work on the poetry of Soviet Jewish refuseniks and Tirosh’s own interests intersect. Only when it becomes clear that Tirosh violated certain academic and literary principles, to which one of the members of the department held true, does the identity of the murderer then emerge:

“I wanted to help him.” He went on talking, as if to himself. “I wanted to be there for him so that he would be able to create the things I believe he was capable of creating. Not because he was my friend but because I believe he was a creator. And when it turned out that he hadn’t created anything—and lied at the expense of art—there was no place left for him in the world. He benefited from the highest thing there is and gave nothing.”

In The Literary Murder and Murder on a Kibbutz—the latter being the finest and most compelling book in the Michael Ohayon series, precisely because the ground shifting beneath the kibbutz of the late 1980s provides the context for the crime—Gur’s particular fusion of content and form finds its highest expression. The kibbutz is, of course, the perfect closed community. It is a society ostensibly without secrets and yet one full of them, riddled with jealously, entangled relationships, and petty rivalries, and held together by one large idea about how best to live one’s life about which no one inside the community can quite agree.

In Murder on a Kibbutz, the question of collective child rearing—still a hot topic in 1991, when this book was first published in Hebrew, although one whose time by then was almost past—is central to the murder by poison of Osnat Harel, the kibbutz secretary whose vision for the future has unnerved those who seek to cling to the old ideals. Of particular interest, as Carol Anne Douglas noted in a 2007 essay, is the relationship between kibbutznikim who survived the Holocaust and the kibbutz’s ideals, for whom the idea and the system were a kind of life raft. Their “mental devastation,” and how the kibbutz community sought to protect them, is another subject of Gur’s investigation.

We also see how the academic inquisitiveness and ethnic otherness which Gur ascribes to her protagonist are interlinked. A psychoanalytic institute, the literature department of the Hebrew University, a kibbutz, and a well-to-do musical family mixed up in art dealing (Murder Duet)—Ohayon finds himself airdropped into closed communities representing the upper crust of Israeli society. While familiar to him by dent of his academic background, he is also, because of his biography, apart from them in some essential way. As Solokoff rightly observed, Ohayon is “able to see through to what is rotten at the core of these worlds”—the “ingrown relations” among the elite, the incestuousness, the sibling rivalries, and the fraud, jealously, deception, and “dangerous ambitions” at play.

*

Although a series bound together by author, protagonist, and form, the final two Michael Ohayan novels, Bethlehem Road Murder and Murder in Jerusalem—the latter, based on a television series co-authored by Gur, was published posthumously—came as a kind of break. Politically engaged, becoming more outspoken after the onset of the Second Intifada, Gur sought to use detective fiction to grapple with Israeli politics and its contemporary history. “The close-knit ethnic relationships that support the social fabric depicted so vibrantly in this series,” Marilyn Stasio observed in her review in the New York Times, “have badly deteriorated.”

Gur’s ever-increasing disenchantment with Israel, not only politically but culturally too, shows up in the work. She retains the closed community conceit—a multiethnic Jerusalem neighborhood or the studios and corridors of Israel’s state broadcaster—yet larger events and controversies intrude upon them. In Bethlehem Road Murder, it is the Yemenite Children Affair of the early statehood years; in Murder in Jerusalem, a possible war crime visited by Israeli soldiers upon their Egyptian counterparts during the Six Day War.

With a change in direction came a perceptible decline in quality; her politicization did not make for good fiction. Of Murder in Jerusalem, the American historian Cushing Strout observed in a 2007 review that there were “too many characters, the pace is too slow, and above all the inquiry is mainly done by this staff rather than the chief superintendent himself.” Discoveries come out of thin air as opposed to Ohayon’s own sleuthing, while “when he does accuse the murderer, we have been given no insight into how Michael arrived at his conclusion.”

Gur gave up the formula which made her series compelling to begin with; attempts to infuse her work with politics comes across as clunky. The entire series ends with a thud in the form of a conversation between Ohayon and his son Yuval, now of military service age, about Zionism, conscription, and emigration. By the end, Strout wrote, Gur had “lost sight of the virtues in the classic form of which she was once a master.”

Revisiting her earliest works, one sees an unfortunate tendency to introduce the matter of sexuality in contexts where it doesn’t quite belong. In detective fiction of a certain vintage, particular gender identities, forms of sexual orientation, or behavior tend to be tied to deviancy and villainy. In Saturday Morning Murder, a suspect’s relationship with a younger man is noted as if to cast doubt upon him. Though his womanizing is a plot point in Literary Murder, the murdered Shaul Tirosh is also described in a unsettling false lead as a “confirmed bachelor,” with a hatred of women and something of an effete. “There was nothing effeminate about this man,” she writes of a widower in Murder Duet, as if that indicated his innocence. His mannerisms include “a wry pursing of his thin lips and a cluck of his tongue.” Such were the times; but none of this has aged particularly well.

In the years since Gur’s death in 2005, Israeli detective fiction has continued to evolve and draw upon new influences. It still finds an audience in translation in the English-speaking world too—taking the success of D.A. Mishani’s Avraham Avraham novels, especially his latest work, Three, as one example. The slower pace of her novels is not only a product of her particular marriage of form and content, but also of their time. Yet without Batya Gur, and without Michael Ohayon, there would be no D.A. Mishani. Her literary legacy is the establishment of detective fiction as a serious, middlebrow genre among the works of Hebrew literature.

• Batya Gur, Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case (trans. Dalya Bilu), Harper Paperbacks, July 2020, pp. 304.
• Batya Gur, The Literary Murder: A Critical Case (trans. Dalya Bilu), Harper Paperbacks, July 2020, pp. 368.
• Batya Gur, Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case (trans. Dalya Bilu), Harper Paperbacks, July 2020, pp. 368.
• Batya Gur, Murder Duet: A Musical Case (trans. Dalya Bilu), Harper Paperbacks, December 2020, pp. 448.
• Batya Gur, Bethlehem Road Murder: A Michael Ohayon Mystery (trans. Dalya Bilu), Harper Paperbacks, December 2020, pp. 384.
• Batya Gur, Murder in Jerusalem: A Michael Ohayon Mystery (trans. Dalya Bilu), Harper Paperbacks, December 2020, pp. 416.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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