Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sacred and mundane

Faye Kellerman's bestselling series of murder mysteries concerns an L.A. police detective named Peter Decker. He stands 6'4" with a muscular build, a shock of red hair and a ginger mustache. He has a tough, no-nonsense personality, and his conversations are laden with profanity.

He is also a practicing Orthodox Jew.

I was first exposed to these books in the early '90s. Several years later I took it upon myself to read the entire series in order, and I have kept up with it ever since. They aren't the type of books I normally read. I like prose that crackles. Kellerman's prose just sits there, except for her dialogue. She has a fine ear for dialogue.

If there is any reason I'm attracted to the series, it's because of its depiction of Orthodox Jews. Kellerman (wife of novelist Jonathan) is not the only writer of modern secular fiction to tackle that subject, but she may be the most accurate, being Orthodox herself. She patterns her style after Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, and other writers who incorporate ethnic details into their crime fiction.

I know little about the mystery genre. Most of my experience comes from reading the old private eye stories which center on logical deduction. Modern police procedurals like Kellerman's are handled differently. The solution to the mystery is usually somewhat arbitrary, arrived at through trial and error rather than through sudden revelation. I do not find her plots especially memorable. What interests me is how she blends the material with Jewish themes.

Most movies and novels featuring Orthodox Jews are way off. Even a film like The Frisco Kid--which many Orthodox Jews love--is full of inaccuracies. Other books and films are often downright offensive. Kellerman takes pains to get the details right. Her Orthodox characters feel like people I've known, something I've never said about any other work of fiction I've read, apart from overtly religious works like Chaim Potok's The Chosen.

But her depiction of the Orthodox community is not a whitewash. She touches upon the problems, the scandals, the extremism. The biggest irony of her books, which feature graphic violence and lurid sexual encounters, is that the types of people she writes about may be the least likely to read them.

Her first book, The Ritual Bath (1986), takes place at a yeshiva. A woman is raped on her way out of a mikvah (the "ritual bath" of the title). Peter Decker comes to investigate the crime and begins to fall in love with Rina Lazarus, a young widow whose late husband was a Talmudic scholar there. The trouble is, she doesn't know Decker is Jewish.

Actually, he didn't know either until he turned eighteen. His biological mother was an Orthodox Jew who gave birth to him in her mid-teens. He was sent to an adoption agency and ended up being raised by Southern Baptists. He served in Vietnam, has a Jewish but nonobservant ex-wife, and is in his late thirties when the series begins. His romance with Rina draws him to the Jewish faith.

And no wonder. Rina is drop-dead gorgeous, sharply intelligent, religious but worldly, and a fine housewife. She's something of a Mary Sue, possibly an idealized version of Kellerman herself. She fades into the background later in the series.

The second book, Sacred and Profane, deals with Decker's theological struggles as he explores Judaism. The title is a quote from the havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbos. A more proper translation would be "sacred and mundane," since profane has connotations not found in the original Hebrew word. Kellerman, however, takes the traditional English translation of the phrase rather literally. The book is about snuff films (which appear in fiction a lot but have never been confirmed to exist in the real world), and it poses the question of how a cop who deals with this kind of stuff daily can possibly be religious.

In a moment of anger, Decker tells Rina that the rabbi who heads the yeshiva (a wonderful character) is living in an ivory tower and maintains his faith only because he hasn't seen the horrors that Decker has seen. Rina promptly informs Decker that the rabbi lost his entire family at Auschwitz. Later, Decker talks to the rabbi himself:
"...there are times when I feel God is omnipresent. I feel Him everywhere I go, in everything I do. And there are times I think there's nothing in the skies but an ozone layer. I'm not an agnostic. I'm not waiting for God to come down and prove His existence to me, because sometimes I just know He's out there. I can't explain why I feel so strongly one minute and like a total atheist the next. In short, sometimes I have doubts."

The old man looked at him impassively and extended his hand across the desktop.

"Join the club, Peter." (pp. 253-4)
I've heard members of many faiths report similar feelings. Recently I was reading The Conservative Soul, a book by journalist Andrew Sullivan, an openly gay Catholic. His take on religion reminded me of Decker's:
There have been periods when I have felt the truth of my faith as powerfully as I have felt a warm current in a cool bay, or the stifling heat of a Washington August. And there have been periods when it has seemed utterly empty, drained, arid, and without passion. (p. 50)
One of my favorite books in the series is the fourth, Day of Atonement. Decker and Rina are newly married, and Decker runs into members of his biological family. Meanwhile, they face one of the fiercest villains in the series, a teenage monster from a yeshiva background. Another favorite, later in the series, is Jupiter's Bones, in which Decker is sent to investigate the death of a man who headed a small science-based cult. This gives Kellerman a chance to explore the elusive boundary between cults and mainstream religions.

Generally, I have preferred the earlier books to the later ones. From the start, I would often skim past the sections that didn't have Jewish content. The trouble is, that content figures considerably less in the later books.

Decker is now middle-aged. (I think Kellerman has done a little sleight of hand to keep Decker relatively young while keeping the series in line with current events, but I'm not sure--I haven't done the math.) Recent books have focused on his daughter from his first marriage. She's not especially religious, and she is simply not that interesting a character. But in the book Street Dreams, she gets into a relationship with an Israeli-born Ethiopian Jew. This plot twist gives Kellerman a convenient way to address the frequent charge that the Jewish ban on intermarriage is racist.

In one scene, Decker's daughter serves him breakfast at her apartment. Since he keeps kosher and she doesn't, we would expect her to make certain accommodations, but the book doesn't mention any. This oversight wouldn't bother me in an ordinary book, and certainly non-Jewish readers won't care. But it's a lapse from what Kellerman achieved earlier in the series. I get the feeling she finds the religious elements of the story increasingly distracting.

On a dramatic level, the series lags in certain places. Occasionally, characters act in ways we can't possibly believe. Sometimes Decker, while scrupulously moral in general, displays questionable ethics. In the eighth book, Justice, he gets promoted to lieutenant after he blackmails his boss, an incompetent bigot, into resigning. Moments like this, while troubling, contribute to Decker's complex characterization--probably the second most important reason I like the series.

No comments: