Book Review: Religion, gangsters, antisemitism and politics

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When the number of books on my to-review stack gets very large, I usually try to write a multi-book review that features more works than a normal review. Sometimes I just pick random works; other reviews offer works with similar themes. This review features four mysteries. However, these novels are so different that, at times, it’s easy to forget they belong to the same genre. The first is a detective procedural; the second, the middle book in a trilogy about gangsters, which also offers insights into the Jewish community; the third, a literary novel about antisemitism; and the fourth, a thriller with a political angle.
“Holy Ceremony”
I’m a fan of detective series, whether the sleuth is a professional or an amateur, so “Holy Ceremony” by Harri Nykanem (Bitter Lemon Press) had an immediate appeal. Ariel Kafka, a Jewish lieutenant in the Helsinki Violent Crime Unit, is an interesting character: he’s a non-practicing Jew, who, at times, finds himself involved in the Jewish community, almost against his will. This is the third book in the series (the review of the first, “Nights of Awe,” can be found at www.thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=2684) and there is once again a religious connection, although this time it’s a Christian one.
A dead woman’s body is found covered with religious text and an envelope addressed to “Ariel Kafka” is discovered at the scene. That begins a cat-and-mouse game between Kafka and the writer, who calls himself “The Adorner of the Sacred Vault.” Several murders may be connected and the only link seems to be a religious school for young boys. Is the “The Adorner” the murderer or is something even more sinister occurring?
Kafka is a great character: he has a droll sense of humor and an admirable dedication to his job, even when he experiences antisemitism from fellow police officers. The plot is complex and filled with surprises. It’s not necessary to have read the first two books to enjoy this one and fans of police procedurals will find much to admire. 
“Gangster Nation”
The saga of Italian hit man Sal Cupertine, AKA Reform Rabbi David Cohen, continues in “Gangster Nation” by Tod Goldberg (Counterpoint). In the first novel of this trilogy, “Gangsterland,” Sal transforms himself into a rabbi at a Los Vegas synagogue with the help of plastic surgery and a stack of Jewish books. (See The Reporter review at www.thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=3797.) His killing of three FBI agents in that book also means that he has to keep his whereabouts a secret. Sal is helped in this by his business partner, Bennie Savone, both of whom benefit from a scheme that uses a Jewish funeral home to secretly bury Mafia and gang murders.
“Gangster Nation” offers three narratives. The most fun is that of Sal as Rabbi Cohen. He successfully manages his congregation using a combination of his newly learned Jewish knowledge and his hitman background. He is tempted to put his hitman skills into action when he disapproves of someone’s behavior. According to Sal, the Mafia has strict rules for what a man must do if he leaves his first wife and no one dares break them. So it doesn’t sit well with him when a member of his congregation dumps his wife and flaunts his new, young girlfriend.
Sal’s wife Jennifer is featured in another plot line. She worries not only about Sal, but her young son’s behavior and whether or not someone looking to kill the two of them. Also on Sal’s trail is former FBI agent Matthew Drew, who wants to find Sal in order to avenge the murder of his partner Jeff Hooper.
While “Gangster Nation” contains a great deal of humor, at least when talking about the members of the synagogue, the novel takes a more serious turn after the events of 9/11. Sal’s life is complex and difficult, and made worse by the fact that his original plastic surgery was not a success. His face not only seems to be melting, but he’s in a great deal of pain and finds it difficult to eat. This problem sets up the novel’s cliff-hanger ending that will leave readers eager to discover what happens next.
“My Darling Detective”
Sometimes the line between a literary novel and a mystery is hard to define. That’s the case with “My Darling Detective” by Howard Norman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which takes place during the 1970s. The work isn’t a traditional mystery: The detective is the girlfriend of narrator Jacob Rigolet rather than the hero himself. The plot is set in motion when Jacob attends an art auction only to see his mother step forward and throw ink at one of the photos being sold. Her presence is a surprise since she’s living in a rest home after having a nervous breakdown several years before. Martha, Jacob’s girlfriend, is the police officer interrogating his mother and her research leads her to several interesting discoveries.
Although at first Jacob seems to have no interest in his past, he begins some exploration in his own right and helps uncover the secrets his mother has been hiding for decades, including murder, antisemitism and a mysterious disappearance. Even with these events, “My Darling Detective” concentrates more on atmosphere than plot, although it’s still enjoyable in an offbeat way. None of the main characters are Jewish, but the way some Canadians felt about Jews in pre-World War II is clearly shown. The ending is exciting and sections – particularly the letters home from a soldier fighting in World War II – are moving.
“Winter Warning”
The words I wrote in my notes after finishing reading Jerome Charyn’s “Winter Warning: An Isaac Sidel Novel” (Pegasus Books) were “wild and weird.” The author offers an introduction that explains the history of Sidel for those readers like myself who never read any of the previous works. In the current novel, which takes place in the late 1980s, Sidel has accidentally become the first Jewish president of the United States, although the members of his party don’t have any faith in his leadership. Sidel is a former cop who trusts almost no one, and that includes the members of his administration and his White House staff. The one exception is someone from his past: a former prime minister of Israel, who has his own secrets and a dark side.
The real action begins during a meeting at Camp David when a band of mercenaries attacks those at the retreat and Sidel has to find out not only what’s happening, but on whom he can depend. The plot of “Winter Warning” is very convoluted, but intriguing. It was difficult in the first part to keep track of the characters, although that might not be a problem for those who’ve read previous books. The action gets very exciting in the third section and raised some interesting moral questions. However, that still wasn’t enough to make me want to read earlier works in the series.