The Yiddish Policemen's Union

There was a small outcry when The Yiddish Policemen's Union took not only the 2007 Hugo for Best Novel, but also the Nebula and Locus awards. Although it takes place in an alternate universe where the state ofIsrael is smashed after WWII and the main action takes place in Sitka, Alaska, a Jewish territory soon to fall back under American control (similar to the Hong Kong/China situation ten years ago) - it's not like it was recognizable as a science fiction or fantasy novel.

And of course it was also written by Michael Chabon, "slumming" it after writing a small novel called The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which went on to win a small award known as the Pulitzer.  Who was this guy to come in and steal all the hard-working real SF&F writers' thunder?

Simple.  Like the best writers, Chabon is someone who simply refuses to work in easy categorizations.  He's written contemporary literature (Kavalier & Clay, Wonder Boys), YA fantasy (Summerland), serialized fiction (Gentlemen of the Road) and copious amounts of nonfiction.  All his writing  - The Yiddish Policemen's Union included - have one major thing in common: all are written with a care and passion that make them as exhilarating and exquisitely readable as they are literate and "mature"...a combination, I should add, that's a sure sign to get noticed, hence the myriad of awards.

So think of The Yiddish Policemen's Union as Raymond Chandler filtered through the Coen Brother's A SERIOUS MAN.  Meyer Landsman used to be the best detective on the force, but a dissolved marriage and too many sips of the bottle have left him tired and beaten in a ramshackle hotel, a month away from being evicted when Sitka reverts back to American control.  When one of his neighbors, a junkie chess prodigy, is murdered things turn into something far more sinister as Meyer is warned off the case - first by his ex-wife and now boss, and then from the Jewish mafia.  But the sleeping giant that is Meyer's detective skills can't let it lie, and so begins a classic noir mystery that involves metal institutions, the possible return of the Messiah, and a chess problem that may be the key to the whole riddle.

Chabon writes with a fast dry wit that's instantly recognizable - both from Chandler's hard boiled Philip Marlowe stories and from a lifetime of imitation in the movies.  The trick of the novel lies in the inventive wordplay centered around (you guessed it) Yiddish, and the rituals and foibles of both a religion and humanity at large.  There are times I laughed out loud, and other times when my heart reached out to Landsman as he struggles to turn his life around in the midst of the investigation.

Fantastic on all counts, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is great alternate history, a great mystery  put together in the classic style, and great literature.  Books like this are a no-brainer, and winning so many prestigious genre awards means that people who wouldn't normally go for Chabon because he's not technically a "sci-fi" or fantasy writer might just give him a shot.

Do it - you won't be sorry.