In a kosher slaughterhouse last week, a chicken turned on the butcher and announced, in fluent Aramaic, the imminent advent of the Messiah. According to newspaper reports, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions. The detective anti-hero of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) supposes that “strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken”.
The strangeness of times is a sort of refrain running through Michael Chabon’s novel, which has as its premise that the Jews settled in Alaska after World War II rather than in Palestine. However, they only got the country on a lease and a few months from now—the plot is set roughly in the present—their promised land reverts to the US. Its population of some three million is facing imminent homelessness again.
Fact and fiction: Chabon’s fantasy fiction is inspired by history. Bloomberg
Under these conditions, the murder of a junkie in a seedy hotel may seem like the least of problems, but homicide detective Meyer Landsman digs stubbornly and—just as the chicken predicted—the case turns out to have shocking ramifications.
The story idea came to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author when he found a Yiddish phrase book in a bookshop. While phrase books can be handy—for instance, in north India a foreign traveller might find use for a Hindi one—the Yiddish book’s implausibility struck Chabon as he pondered phrases such as “I need something for a tourniquet”. In what sort of country would this phrase book be useful?
A fantastic story premise hinges on its minute details because once an author begins asking himself “What if the world were different?”, he has to pretty much reimagine everything. I’m not thinking of science fiction here, Alice in Wonderland or even Harry Potter—but rather of books which depict our everyday world with some major twist.
Apart from portraying the linguistic peculiarities of a Yiddish nation, Chabon seems to have reworked our entire modern history in his mind. For instance, we read between the lines that Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet hit Jackie instead of John F., and so the most glamorous first lady in American history is Marilyn Monroe Kennedy.
This kind of tiny but inspired puzzle-piece shows how meticulously Chabon has thought out his premise, to make the incredible seem plausible, which is essential in a novel with a fantastic setting as its centrepiece. But the work of crafting an adequate amount of credible detail is so tricky that this particular sub-genre (“novels with fantastic settings”) has unfortunately remained largely unexplored by crime writers. It is understandable, since a book ends up in double jeopardy: First, you need readers to accept your plot (and detective novel readers are one conservative bunch when it comes to crime and punishment); second, they must accept the implausible setting.
Considering the difficulties involved, why would a writer take the trouble to create an alternative world? Well, sometimes he might like to explore an idea that is so extreme that normal fictional settings won’t suffice. Within crime fiction, another notable book comes to mind: Len Deighton’s 1978 best-seller SS-GB, in which homicide detective Douglas Archer finds himself working in a Nazi-occupied Britain.
Interestingly, life goes on in a humdrum way in 1941 although circumstances are very, very different. The King is locked up in the Tower of London, Churchill has been executed, Marx is being exhumed at Highgate Cemetery to be handed over to the Red Army as a token of Nazi-Communist friendship, and SS-Gruppenführer Kellerman heads Scotland Yard. Archer tries to let none of this disturb his police work: A stiff with strange burns and two gunshots in the chest has been found in a dingy flat full of black-market wares in Shepherd’s Market. As in Chabon’s novel, the seemingly straightforward case turns out to have cataclysmic ramifications.
Here it is worth noting that Deighton, apart from writing popular Cold War-thrillers, also wrote historical war accounts, which is perhaps how the terrifying thought occurred to him: What if Hitler had won?
To return to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, its success is proved by the fact that the reader, in the end, feels regret that he will never be able to visit the Jewish nation of Alaska so evocatively rendered in Chabon’s novel, and put that curious Yiddish phrase book to use.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based Swedish writer of crime fiction. Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org