Off the shelf | Mystery, vice and murder infuse crop of new novels

The phenomenon of “genre fiction” is an interesting one, with bookstores frequently separating mystery, romance and science fiction titles into their own neighborhoods. While there can be benefits to such segregation, there is a loss when readers allow prejudices based on genre to steer them away from good books. 

This is particularly true of mysteries, where the path of discovery can involve valuable history lessons and compelling psychological exploration.

Gina B. Nahai’s first novel in seven years, “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.,” is actually unlikely to be shelved among mysteries, but it is one.

It begins on a gruesome note, with the alleged discovery of a powerful and much-detested member of Los Angeles’ Persian Jewish émigré community sitting in his car with his throat slit, and the swift disappearance of his body before the police arrive. It turns out that there are many Angelenos with reason to be suspected in the murder.

If the victim is actually dead, that is.

Such a situation sounds like the launching point for any number of police procedurals. In this novel, the questions are answered not by a detective’s inquest, but through immersion in decades of family history in Tehran and Los Angeles.

With doses of magical realism, the narrative skips back and forth through time to trace the changing fortunes of the Soleyman clan as they prosper in Iran under the Shah, suffer in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution and strive to establish themselves as immigrants in Los Angeles.

The murder victim, known as Raphael’s Son, would have been an heir to the family’s fortune. But relatives have always believed him to be illegitimate, and have shunned him and his mother. 

In turn, Raphael’s Son grew up to be ruthless and vengeful, developing a heartless streak that helped him achieve great wealth through extortion and Ponzi schemes. 

For those familiar with Iranian-born Nahai’s earlier work — particularly the sweeping epic “Cry of the Peacock” — it will come as no surprise that, ultimately, the whodunit takes a back seat to the colorful exposition of how families are shaped by their history. As one character expresses it, “We may carry the past around like a tether, but because of that we can see farther, and deeper into ourselves and others.”

Last year saw the publication of the English translation of “The Missing File,” Israeli author D.A. Mishani’s popular crime novel introducing Avraham Avraham, a detective in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. 

The second installment in the series, “A Possibility of Violence,” written in a similarly deliberate and understated style, takes place in the aftermath of the previous one, with Avraham haunted by his bungling of that earlier investigation. 

Upon returning from several months in Belgium, Avraham is assigned to the investigation of a fake bomb in a suitcase placed outside a day care center. The detective’s self-doubt surfaces increasingly as the case becomes more vexing, particularly when his theories run counter to the judgment of his supervisors, who appear to have become skeptical of his intuition. 

Further fueling his insecurity is his inability to solve the mystery in his personal life: why Marianka, the police officer he met in Belgium who plans to join him in Israel, is failing to return his calls. 

While most of the book depicts Avraham’s perspective, it also follows Chaim Sara, whose son attends the day care center near where the bomb was found, and whose Filipina wife has disappeared. As Sara emerges as a suspect in the investigation, the parallel narratives take on new meaning.

If Mishani opens a window on the unseemly criminal dimension of Israeli life, the new anthology “Tel Aviv Noir” places it on a billboard. Edited by prominent writers Assaf Gavron and Etgar Keret, this is actually the 66th installment in Akashic’s Noir series, with titles ranging from “Baltimore Noir” to “Trinidad Noir,” all of which feature a predilection for murder, mystery and vice. 

With its surfeit of sex, drugs and violence, it’s hard not to think of this volume as documenting the fulfillment of David Ben-Gurion’s famous pronouncement that Israel will be a normal country only when Jewish thieves and prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew. 

And indeed, Keret notes in his foreword that “in spite of its outwardly warm and polite exterior, Tel Aviv has quite a bit to hide. At any club, most of the people dancing around you to the sounds of a deep-house hit dedicated to peace and love have undergone extensive automatic-weapons training and a hand-grenade tutorial.” 

That said, while one story literally upset my stomach, a number of the surprisingly varied tales have little violence at all, but show the tremendous complexity of urban life in Israel, as related by some of Israel’s most gifted — and disproportionately young and untranslated — writers.

“The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” by Gina B. Nahai (380 pages, Akashic, $16.95)

“A Possibility of Violence” by D. A. Mishani (288 pages, Harper, $26.99)

“Tel Aviv Noir” edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron (280 pages, Akashic, $15.95)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco.  All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.