Any devotees of the detective novel not yet acquainted with Israeli detective Adam Lapid have a veritable feast awaiting them. A Death in Jerusalem is itself a cracker, but it is Jonathan Dunsky’s seventh novel featuring Lapid.
Dunsky lives in today’s Israel with his wife and two sons, but the setting for six of the seven novels is Israel just after independence, in the period of 1949-1952. Lapid is a Holocaust survivor – the last remaining member of his family, the rest of whom perished in Auschwitz. Having worked as a police detective in Hungary before the war, Lapid spends his time in the nascent state of Israel solving cases that the police will not handle. The sixth novel, The Auschwitz Detective, is a prequel that takes place in Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944.
Dunsky has clearly researched in depth the way Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were in 1952, but he reveals somewhere that he also persistently quizzed his parents, both of whom grew up in Tel Aviv in the 1940s and ’50s, about the way things looked then and the atmosphere on the streets. He describes Tel Aviv as “whole” and Jerusalem as “broken.” Following the War of Independence, the Jordanian army occupied the eastern part of Jerusalem including, notably, the Old City containing the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. “The old Jewish Quarter,” he writes, “was a Nazi dream come true – Judenfrei, free of Jews.”
Dunsky recreates both the locale and the atmosphere of 1952 Jerusalem in convincing detail – the Knesset in Frumin House, the Café Atara on Ben-Yehuda, the Zion cinema, the Schwartz department store. The bank that he describes as “Berkeley’s” must surely be the UK’s old-established Barclay’s bank, which first had branches in Mandate Palestine.
The plot begins in Israel in 1952
As the plot begins, Israel is in turmoil over the huge political issue that dominated politics in 1952 – whether the state should open direct negotiations with Germany for some sort of financial recompense for the unspeakable horrors inflicted on the Jewish people during the war. Lapid, totally opposed to the idea that money could or should be used to expiate the crimes committed by the Nazis, joins the demonstration outside the Knesset as parliamentarians discuss and vote on the issue.
Arrested during the protest on a false charge, Lapid is plucked from police custody through the influence of a man who wants him to investigate why his daughter committed suicide. From that point, we are drawn into a pacey character-driven detective thriller, with surprises galore. As he pursues his investigation, often traveling down a wrong path before discovering his mistake, Lapid finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue and violence, some of which he endures, and some he administers.
Discussing how he set about writing his Adam Lapid series, Dunsky says the setting – the early years of Israel’s existence – influenced everything, including the detective work itself.
“Since there were hardly any private cars in Israel at the time,” he says, “my private eye, Adam Lapid, has to take the bus, or walk, or occasionally splurge on a taxi. Since there were barely any telephones, he can’t call people at their home. And since forensic science was in its infancy, he has to rely on his raw detecting skills to solve the case.
“Above all, the specter of the Holocaust looms. Adam Lapid is forever changed by his time there. Adam is a loner, reluctant to make new connections, and is weighed down by survivor’s guilt. He doesn’t trust state authority, in spite of being an ardent Zionist, and is willing to tread beyond the limits of the law to bring about justice.”
The plot ends on a note that might seem ambiguous but is surely true to life. Lapid uncovers the truth he is seeking – but it is a truth he finds it impossible to reveal. Moreover, during the final revelation of the facts, to his and perhaps to our surprise, he discovers love – but it is a love that will have to remain unfulfilled.
A Death in Jerusalem is a detective thriller in the classic mold – well written, incident-rich, pacey and featuring a detective hero who may be flawed but who is utterly believable. His judgment is far from perfect – he makes mistake after mistake – but he is determined and persistent, and he battles on past all the many obstacles thrown in his path. When the moment comes to be ruthless with enemies intent on his death, he does not flinch.
A Death in Jerusalem makes very little, if any, reference to the six Adam Lapid novels that precede it. It is a first-class detective novel on its own merits and is thoroughly recommended.
A Death in JerusalemBy Jonathan DunskyLion Cub Publishing382 pages; $24.99