The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is fairly easy to describe: an alternate history mystery tale set in a Jewish colony in Alaska that’s about to be handed over to the United States. But it’s so much more. This book pays homage to the great hardboiled traditions of the past but has a big beating heart in the middle. And it also functions as a hilarious and sad commentary on Jewish life post-World War II.
I’m aware of how acclaimed Michael Chabon is but I’ve not had much success with his books. He’s the lit-type writer that I always seem to appreciate more than enjoy. But this one was enjoyable, in large part because I loved the lead character despite himself and also because I loved the world Chabon created, one so adjacent to our own but also unique in its own way.
The mystery itself is interesting too, a kind of Chinatown tale involving Jewish folks gathered in an unlikely corner of the world. I enjoyed unspooling the story with Chabon; he writes with such beautiful prose. Every word and phrase is carefully considered, yet the hardboiled style helps to rein him in from pretentiousness. He cares about his characters and these people and it shows in the story.
If the book has one shortcoming, it’s that Chabon can get a little too carried away with what he’s created at the expense of storytelling. There are a few places where the book falls shy of greatness. But it’s still a very good read that’s both hilarious and sad.