A Jewish state settled in the wilds of Alaska? The atomic bomb dropped on Berlin in 1946? Hints like these help you to realize that the world Michael Chabon gives us is not the actual world that we live in. This alternate history presented in The Yiddish Policemen's Union provides the context and setting for an unusual who-done-it mystery. Speaking of unusual, this book has one of the most intriguing graphic designs for a book cover that I have seen in a long time. The jacket and text illustrations were provided by Will Staeble — I'll have to keep an eye out for his work.
Meyer Landsman is a down-and-out police detective, and his drinking and generally self-destructive behaviors have led to the failure of his marriage. Despite being surrounded by loyal friends and family, he seems to be in a downward spiral that can’t end well. So far has he fallen that he now resides in a hotel of questionable reputation.
To add insult to injury, a murder takes place in the hotel. Guilt motivates Landsman to take a personal interest in the case — he feels guilty that a crime was committed essentially in his house, and he feels even worse that he never knew the man. They lived in the same place, and he can’t remember if they had even nodded at one another in the elevator.
Looking for clues, Landsman notices a chess game in progress on the nightstand along with a book of chess strategies. We learn that Landsman’s father was a chess prodigy. Landsman bears emotional scars from his chess-playing days with his father, and he has a deep loathing for the game. Yet it is the chess board that intrigues him most about this case. So, he begins to investigate.
What complicates matters is that his ex-wife is now his boss; his cousin/partner is rapidly running out of patience for Landsman’s excesses; and the Jewish state is going to revert to Alaska in two months' time.
The looming reversion affects all citizens of the Jewish community, and uncertainty is woven through all of the interactions and moods of its citizens. No one acts like themselves. Their way of life is ending, and there are few guarantees to what lies ahead for any of them.
Landsman is told to not make trouble and to solve all of his open cases any way he can. He knows that’s what he should do, but is compelled to find out who really killed the man in his hotel.
What follows is an intriguing tale of faith, expectations, disappointments, redemption, and messiahs. You find yourself drawn into Landsman’s world, and you want him to get to the bottom of things. In the process you find yourself pulling for him to snap out of the despair that has taken control of his life.
This was not a fast read for me — Chabon expects you to really absorb what he is telling you and to think about what it means. That’s a lot more than most mystery writers ask of their readers. But if you do what is asked of you, you’re rewarded with an intriguing, satisfying tale.