Tel Aviv Noir

An interview with the author Daria Shualy about her trailblazing debut detective novel, the state of crime lit in Israel, and the writing life.

Photo: Itamar Ginsburg

Many people in Israel, especially in Tel Aviv, have been excited by a new novel that was published by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir a few months ago (so far only in Hebrew). Daria Shualy’s literary debut Kali Barak – (‘Lightning Rod’) is a dark, suspenseful, atmospheric, sweaty and highly enjoyable effort. And it’s quite unique in Israeli literature.

“In the hottest summer in fifty years, as rockets from Gaza are falling on Tel Aviv, private investigator Mazi Morris – the woman who has nothing, goes looking for Jasmin Schechter – the woman who has it all,” says the book’s back cover. “A year ago, Morris went from being a rising star at Tel Aviv’s police special case unit, to getting fired for inappropriate behavior. This leaves her searching for Jasmin Schechter without a badge and with little resources. But what seems at first as a problem, turns out to be an advantage; in Israel’s backyard, where the rich do as they please, it’s better to play with your gloves off.”

Daria and I live in the same neighborhood in Tel Aviv and have been friends for years. I don’t know her as a writer, for the simple reason that she wasn’t one until recently. She worked for many years as an editor in the Israeli press, founded two start-up companies, and still works in the start-up world. Her debut novel came out at the age of 48 – not the standard age for these kinds of endeavors – to glowing reviews.

The darkly seductive cover of the book looks great, with immaculately pedicured hot-red toes peeking under it on a sandy beach in Greece, and since summer started those are the exact images popping up in endless Instagram stories of women on holiday devouring it with delight. The cover photo – palm trees illuminated in red on a pitch-black background – look very much like a neo-noir book or film poster set in L.A. It reminded me of the poster of the movie L.A. Confidential, based on the James Ellroy novel. But the photograph, like everything else in the novel, is set in Israel. Shualy herself took the picture on her phone while running on the Tel Aviv Promenade. “It’s from one of those cafés on the beach,” she tells me. “There is no effect on the photo. The trees were really lit up in red.”

Shualy set out to write a detective novel. From her editor she learned it’s actually a neo-noir.  “I’m not such an expert in genres,” she says when we sit down for this interview. “When the book was half-written I brought it to Noa Menhaim, my editor, for the first time and she read it and asked me what genre I thought it was. I said: well, it’s a detective novel. And she said: ‘Uh-uh, it’s a neo-noir.’ I was thinking – great, that sounds good! I was familiar with neo-noir in film – Roman Polanski‘s China Town is probably my favorite film ever – but I didn’t really know what it meant in literature. I asked Noa to walk me through this, and I remember exactly what she said: ‘It’s not plot driven, its character driven. The city plays a role, the weather plays a role, and you have a hard-boiled detective and a femme fatale, but in your case, they’re the same person.’ I loved that description.”

The city she is referring to is Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv in summer. Anyone who’s ever been to Tel Aviv in July or August dreads it. Like the tired Israeli cliché goes: it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. Of course, it’s a cliché because it’s true. ln Tel Aviv, the summers are long, warm, muggy, and terribly humid. On some days humidity can reach 90%, which means that you sweat horribly every moment you are not in an air-conditioned space.

Was the fact that the city and the weather play such an important part of the story a conscious decision?

“Nothing was a conscious decision, that’s not the way I write. I made a point of writing without thinking. Not even over-thinking, but any thinking. And then I re-wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote. So the conscious decisions were made after the book was written. My attitude towards writing is very much the way Stephen King described it. It’s there and you get the privilege of uncovering it. Like archeology. Mazi was born with a name, with a personality, with certain looks, and a biography. There were suddenly dialogues in my head and she was one of the people talking.

“So, putting Tel Aviv in the center of the story wasn’t a conscious decision, but I do remember that when I tried writing when I was much younger my mom told me that you should stick to writing about things you know. I know and love Tel Aviv. It’s my favorite place in the entire world. I’ve lived here ever since I can remember, with very few years of not living here. By setting the story in Tel Aviv I was on familiar ground. I could place the characters here and feel very confident. It freed me up to experiment with the rest of the elements of the story because I know the surroundings. And I love Tel Aviv in summer. I also hate it obviously, but I love it too. I love that there’s something about it that is very sensual and very atmospheric because of the sweat. There is something about it that makes for a good atmosphere for this kind of story. The weather puts a sort of strain over the plot. Because it’s not comfortable. It’s not easy. And Mazi is not an easy character. She’s not easy to herself, she’s had a tough life. Something about it kind of works.”

It does work. In any kind of disappearance story there is a race against time. That’s what life in Tel Aviv in the summer feels like, because you can’t be outside for an extended period of time, and you need to run home and shower very frequently.  

“Exactly. Living in Israel is very stressful, and the weather adds to the stress because you’re agitated, you’re suffering. In some other hot countries, there is still a siesta and people take a break between two and four in the afternoon. Israel used to be like that too. When we were kids, shops used to close during the hottest hours. In some smaller cities in Israel that still happens, but in Tel Aviv people run around all the time.”

**

Batya Gur, Israeli master of detective fiction who passed away in 2005, famously set her stories in Jerusalem (for more on Gur see Liam Hoare’s article in these pages). But there are also many detective and suspense novels set in Tel Aviv, like Asylum City: A Novel, which delves into the world of African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, written by Israel’s leading thriller writer Liad Shoham – dubbed the Israeli John Grisham – and was published in English by Harper Collins. Or Zeh yigamer be-bechi [‘It Will End in Tears’] by Ehud Asheri, set in the offices of a daily newspaper (currently only available in Hebrew). Even Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is a former journalist and writer, published a series of hardboiled detective novels in the vein of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, which were set in Tel Aviv.

Daria made a point of reading most of these after submitting her manuscript. Initially, this wasn’t her world, which is why I was so surprised when she told me she was writing a detective novel. “I only started reading the detective genre after I started writing the book,” she explains. “I wanted to enter that world and to figure out what I liked and disliked about the genre. And I didn’t dare read any detective stories in Hebrew because I was afraid I’d somehow be influenced by them. So, I only read in English and I started reading Israeli detective novels only in March, when my novel came out.”

As “people of the book,” Israelis sometimes feel uncomfortable with fiction that’s not strictly literary, meaning fiction that exists for entertainment value. But Shualy wears this badge with pride. “I don’t think it’s a matter of genre because obviously there are detective, suspense, neo-noirs which are absolutely fantastic pieces of literature,” she says. “Whether it’s Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel or James Grippando’s Cane and Abe. But because I read literature, mostly classics, I can’t place myself with this book on the same shelf as Natalia Ginzburg or Romain Gary or Edith Wharton. I couldn’t call it literature because literature to me is those books. Not that I intended to write a fun or lightweight book. I wrote the book I could write. I don’t know what my next book will be like.”

She also didn’t flinch when people told her she would get in trouble with the identity politics police because of the book. “I was told I’d get in trouble,” she chuckles. “It didn’t occur to me initially, but I was told by a few friends that I would get in trouble because I’m Ashkenazi and my protagonist is Mizrahi.” But she didn’t get in trouble. When the reviews were out, no one said a word about it.

“I have no idea how that happened,” she says. “Maybe Mazi specifically isn’t offensive. Perhaps if a Mizrahi woman would have found her offensive in any way or promoting problematic stereotypes I would have gotten in trouble. Or maybe the right person hasn’t read it yet.”

Maybe if Mazi were a man, you would have gotten in trouble.

“Maybe if I were a man I would have gotten in trouble.”

That too.

“As an Ashkenazi woman, my ability to understand identity politics in the most profound way is lacking, so maybe there’s something I’m missing here – as for reasons I didn’t get in trouble as well as reasons that I should. I honestly don’t know.”

Why did you make Mazi Mizrahi?

“I didn’t make her anything, she was born that way in my head.”

Since Shualy brought to life a brand-new female detective, she was naturally asked in interviews which Israeli female detective was her role model. “Yeah, I was asked that,” she admitted. “To which I answered that I only started reading those books after mine was published, but the only Israeli detective I ever looked up to or felt attracted to is Michael Ohayon, Batya Gur’s protagonist – and he’s male.”

Do you find it difficult to identify with female protagonists in general?

“Not exactly. It’s more like, I can identify with some female protagonists, and love some of them. But you know that feeling you get as a child, that there are characters you want to be? I remember, as a kid, wanting to be Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables and then later I wanted to be Batman. So there are very few female protagonists in fiction, film or TV that make me feel that way. Maybe it’s my choice of books ha-ha – Annie Proulx, Hemingway, De Beauvoir… they don’t go easy on their female characters. TV and film too have only offered few protagonists who make me feel that way; Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill, Saga Norén from The Bridge and Stella Gibson from The Fall. Mazi, to me, is more like them.”

What makes those you’ve mentioned, and Mazi, so different to most female protagonists?

“They kick ass and they verge on comic book superhero. “

This is why it’s not surprising that Shualy’s plans for PI Mazi Morris are so big. She wants to turn the novel into both a book series and a TV series or film: “I’m already writing the second book. And I’ve already been approached by a few TV production companies, but I’ve decided to put that on the back burner for now because my top priority at the moment is being translated to as many languages as possible.”

**

Identity politics aside, there aren’t a lot of politics in the book. But still, there are hints to Shualy’s political leanings as well as mentions of corruption in high places and there is a war in the background. It’s not named, but it’s based on the 2014 Gaza War. The war is described in the book almost like the weather – it’s uncomfortable, it’s stressful, it’s a nuisance.

“Because for Tel Avivians war really is a minor nuisance,” she explains. “I mean, I hate it, I get horrible anxiety every time it happens and running down to the bomb shelter with your kids in the middle of the night is horrid, but for young Tel Avivians without kids it’s no big deal. It’s definitely not what it is for people in Gaza – a real life-threatening full-blown war.”

One nuisance that is not mentioned in the book is COVID – because it all happens before that started. But COVID might have a role in the appeal of Kali Barak. The detective novel has been commonplace in Israeli literature ever since Batya Gur published her influential novel Saturday Morning Murder in 1988, although it never became quite as popular as spy and suspense novels. Still, many local detective writers have been flourishing in recent years, such as Dror Mishani, Orna Kazin, Yonatan Sagiv and others. And it seems that since COVID started, we need detective novels more than ever.

Shualy agrees: “I think we need these kinds of narratives these days because since COVID started, things have been more chaotic than ever. Detective novels sort of make sense of the world. When everything is crazy you need that one person who can come in and make sense of it all. It might be escapist, but it gives a sort of feeling of calm. It’s sort of like British filmmaker Adam Curtis’s claim in his documentary Bitter Lake. While telling the story of the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the main claim he makes is that Western politicians have been regressing to basic narratives of good vs evil because the world has become so complex that we’ve lost the ability to understand it. That’s why everybody resorts to simpler narratives. I think this hyper-complexity is one of the reasons why the detective novel genre has seen a revival. In times of uncertainty, like since COVID started, we need that reassurance more than ever.”

Ah, simpler times.

“Exactly. The Penguin did it.”

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