Imagine, for a second, that Tel Aviv is a real place.
If you already understand what I mean – great; if not give me a minute.
Tel Aviv represents a lot of different themes for a lot of different groups. If you’re Israeli, it might mean something like “Expensive Fashionable High Tech Liberal Bubble.” If you’re religious, it might signify irreligion. If you’re a Zionist, it might mean “the original and indisputably Jewish place carved out of a malarial swamp beach.” If you’re a politically Left observant Jew, it might hold out the promise of the “New Talmud.” If you’re an architect type, it’s the White City. If you’re a global citizen, Tel Aviv might be a foodie, cosmopolitan, gay-friendly oasis in the middle of one of the most conservative parts of the world. If you’re an anti-Zionist (or, as we might fairly summarize, an antisemite), it is the city state protected by the Iron Dome from which the Jewish Lobby influences the world. You get it. We could go on.
That is exactly the point. Tel Aviv is, all the time, a symbol. In that way, it is like Israel: constantly a synecdoche, an emblem, a site-shibboleth. And in that way, Tel Aviv, like Israel, is unlike most places on Earth. It is impossible to imagine that Houston, Sydney, Accra, Buenos Aires or Moscow, to name but a few, would conjure anywhere close to the same cognitive meaning for so many people. True, those are cities where you can find iconic monuments and local foods, where certain lifestyles may be more famous than others, and where the weather is such and such and the people are more typically this way or that. The cities each have unique distinctions. But they are, most of all, real places where real people live.
So is Tel Aviv, and it is time to acknowledge that in our literature. And where real people live, they have real people lives, and, in their cities, good and bad befalls them, they encounter the beautiful and the ugly, and their sanctities and profanities appear in close quarters. In these cities, in any city, one bad that befalls the residents, one baneful profanity, is murder.
A well-wrought murder mystery should tell you something about its setting. The story should reveal its place, the characters who live there and the conditions of life that led to the crime. The best murder mysteries are those that could not have unfolded anywhere else. They are necessarily tied to the scene of the crime.
For too long, fiction set in Tel Aviv – I should say, more broadly, fiction set in Israel – has collapsed into the understandable but unmistakable habit of evoking the enormous symbolisms of the place. If we look, for example, at the novels written by Americans that are set in Israel (avoiding, for the moment, and for the sake of both your sanity and mine, wading into the thick waters of books written by Israelis), they can probably be divided into two large buckets.
FIRST, THERE are the Works of Biblical Fiction. You know what I’m talking about: a famous biblical figure, or his less heralded wife/sister/third son, is given a fascinating new gloss by a contemporary writer. Second, there is the fiction set in what might be called the heroic age of modern Israel, roughly 1948 to probably approximately the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was the obvious underdog in all its external conflicts, when the intrepid Israeli people were celebrated globally for making the deserts bloom into gardens, when, daily, the new and fragile Jewish state was pulling off miracle after impossible miracle to realize the dreams of millennia. But at some point over the last 40 or 50 years, Israel became more inevitable. (No doubt, one can ask how inevitable Israel actually is, in the scheme of all things, especially given the nuclear aspirations of some of the lunatics in the neighborhood, but also doubtless we can agree Israel is far more of a fact than it was in 1951.)
More significantly, Israel became more of a real place. Young people became more preoccupied with their future occupations than with an existential threat. Commerce came to replace irrigation as a primary perennial objective. Startups took the place in popular imagination once held by kibbutzim. Quotidian concerns like the price of milk and honey overtook the concerns of how and where to restart production of milk and honey. The cost of developing derelict lots in Tel Aviv’s best neighborhoods replaced discussion of mosquito-borne diseases in the city. This is the way of progress, at least if your country is doing it right.
Little by little, and then all at once, Tel Aviv became a real place. It continued to contain within it all of its history, its boundaries, and its symbolisms. But the Tel Aviv of today is very much a real place in which the real life humdrum, the daily comedy and tragedy, is – and should be – more pronounced than an abstract narrative. It is a failure of imagination to continue to insist on imagining Tel Aviv chiefly as an urban magical pixie whose primary job is to carry the fairy dust of Bauhausism or Colonialism or Pioneerism.
And what manner of Real Place has Tel Aviv become? In the last 20 years, as Israel has become a wealthy country, the distillation of that wealth has appeared more visibly in Tel Aviv than anywhere else. The “hi-tech,” as that singular word smashup is pronounced on its streets, has created enormous affluence in the city. Gleaming towers of glass and steel now sit right next to not only rickety buildings of the prior century but also open trash dumps where passersby toss empty beer bottles and candy wrappers. Neighborhoods of wig shops and schmatta stores about others with shared software development workspaces and boutique hotels. The rich and the poor, the fresh and the ramshackle, are tightly and visibly adjoined.
Not only that, but the Diaspora has flowed into Tel Aviv’s close quarters, so you can hear the music of Hebrew, English, French, Arabic, Russian, Persian, Italian and other languages spoken by residents and visitors. There are hints, too, of cosmopolitan styles of dress, though perhaps fewer than one might see in other global cities. The city teems with young people, looking for action, hustling past older couples bemused and annoyed by the traffic and housing prices their once-quiet town now commands. The mood of the city is locally political: not a soul is happy with the trash pickup or the damn rents; only who’s to blame is disputed.
This is a real city, a real place. It is tailor made for a murder mystery.
THE BEST form of murder fiction, in my opinion, is the noir. Noir is also, in my view, one of the three genuine American art forms (the others being jazz and its progeny and the Western movie, and, yes, we can meet up for coffee and argue about that another time). Practitioners of the art form now come from all over the world, but the essential elements have remained largely the same for the past 75 years. In almost all cases, the atmosphere of a City – of a proper, textured city – is indispensable.
The basic promise of a noir – since Chandler, Cain, Hammett and Macdonald – is that an incorruptible detective, a man apart, journeys through the visible and invisible miasma of the city, from the upstairs penthouses to the downstairs trash heaps, from the enlightened to the cowered, from the beautiful to the discarded, monomaniacally undeterred in his mission to find the killer himself and whoever else might have put the killer up to the job. For this, the choice of city is essential. You need a city that is big enough for the task. It must have great wealth disparity, cultural diversity and tension, political intrigue, either a core of virtuous ambition encircled by an atmosphere of corruption or the reverse, and enough tantalizing yet uneasy social mobility to make the striving – and the killing that ends it – worth the trouble. Perhaps most importantly, for the ingredients of the noir murder mystery to be just right, the city must be undergoing a period of rapid and momentous change. Social, political, and economic upheaval must be upon it.
For these requirements, I can think of no place on earth better than Tel Aviv. It is, after all, a real place on the move. Where you can easily imagine dreamers arriving from all corners of the country and planet, seeking their fortunes and futures. And where you can easily imagine that, lurking in its corners, is the occasional hell-bent harbinger of the profane, who aims to snuff it all out.
The writer is author of HIP SET (2021), a noir murder mystery set in Tel Aviv.