Friday, May 14, 2010

Literary Murder: A Critical Case

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Literary Murder: A Critical Case (HarperCollins, 1994).

Here's a decent example of a contemporary police procedural, one which screams out for a late '80s BBC adaptation. At a major university in Jerusalem, a doctoral student abruptly turns on his idol, the internationally acclaimed poet Shaul Tirosh, embarrassing him during a televised seminar. Before the weekend is out, both men are dead and Inspector Michael Ohayon must deal with a web of lies and hidden affairs, and with stubborn academic types refusing to assist him with his inquiries. If it sounds like something from the PD James playboook, you wouldn't be wrong; all you'd need to do is set it on an island somewhere and have Dalgliesh think about taking some time off and you'd be most of the way there.

This isn't actually a PD James novel, although it brings to mind the best of her work. Literary Murder: A Critical Case was the late Batya Gur's second novel to be published in the United States. I first read it more than ten years ago, in college, and was so surprised and thrilled by it that I bought her first American novel soon after. Unfortunately, I found that one to be impenetrably ponderous, so I shelved it and never got back to her.

Having finished several other authors during my recent revisiting of detective fiction, I dug out these two books again. Unfortunately, The Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case is just as dense and dry as it was a decade ago. I figured that I had a lot on my mind in 2000 and didn't afford it the attention it warranted back then, but no, it really is a morass. Literary Murder, however, while still a considerable improvement, has not aged quite as well as I had hoped. I had a lot of trouble visualizing the action, which I'd like to think is down to both an unflattering translation and my complete lack of knowledge of what Jerusalem looks like, but I also realized in several cases that I had skipped right over small, important bits. It's a very good story, and Tirosh's captivating hold on people turns him into a terrific posthumous villain, but I wasn't left with very strong feelings about the book's hero, and just didn't follow it as closely as I'd hoped. Probably worth a read for fans of the genre, but recommended with reservations.

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