Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

This 2007 novel caught my attention by winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel of the year (among several other awards it has garnished).  I've long been trying to read every Hugo award-winning novel--finishing this brings my percentage of total winners read to 70% (40 out of 57 total, not including the retro Hugos).  Winning both awards is high praise for TYPU, so I went into it with great anticipation.

The book did not disappoint.  The novel is really only science fiction by virtue of the fact that it is set in an alternate future (my dad would argue strongly that this alone does not fit his purists' definition of scifi...but I digress).  In Chabon's timeline, Israel is crushed shortly after its inception, leading to a mass emigration of Jews to the Alaska Territory in the United States.  Alaska has been opened up to Jewish immigration by an act of Congress on the recommendation of the Slattery Report of 1940, a "real-life" proposal by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Thus, the city of Sitka has become home to a large Jewish community, making it a metropolis of many millions of people.

It is here where we encounter Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck homicide detective in the Sitka police department.  He is investigating a murder that happened in his place of residence, a fleabag motel too cheap to afford a neon sign.  His victim has been shot in the back of the head while studying a chess problem in a book by Seigbert Tarrasch.  How is that for a classic hard-boiled detective story opening?

The plot follows the various threads of Landsman's investigation that lead from an old chess club frequented by Landsman's father to a meeting with Sitka's most powerful crime boss.  Along the way, we meet a colorful cast of Sitka residents whose characterization is just fantastic.  I don't want to give any of the plot away, but it culminates with a very personal experience for Meyer Landsman.

The novel is extremely well written with an amazing realization of the alternate-Sitka world.  The whole novel just drips with atmosphere.  It is one of those uncommon books that makes you wonder how an author can create something so complete without having actually experienced it himself.  I highly recommend.

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