Elish ben Aken, the protagonist of Shimon Adaf’s One Mile and Two Days Before Sunset, is a disappointed man — a failed chronicler of Israeli rock ‘n’ roll and an unsuccessful philosopher. We first encounter him at Tel Aviv University, stumbling through a lecture on the relationship between poets and serial killers. Neither the baffled students nor even Elish himself is convinced. So now he works as a detective, a private investigator: “a clerk,” as he puts it, “of small human sins.”
But then a real case gets dumped in his lap. Yehuda Menuhin, a well-known professor of philosophy, is dead in an apparent suicide. Meanwhile, the cold case murder of Dalia Shushan, a hauntingly gifted singer (“the voice of a siren with a corpse in each chamber of her heart”), appears to be somehow linked to Menuhin. Are poets and killers one and the same? To find out, Elish must embark on a journey in which he confronts betrayal, the quicksilver nature of true genius, and the yawning loneliness of his own life.
Adaf has fun playing with all the old noir tropes — the hard-bitten detective moving through the nighttime city, the goons that trash his office and then beat him senseless. Even his Gal Friday is right out of an old Bogart movie: a wisecracking tough chick with a heart of gold and a soft spot for her boss. But layered over the old-time atmospherics is some erudite Jewish content for us to ponder. Dalia was murdered on Tisha B’av, after all. And Menuhin killed himself the day after Yom Kippur. Sometimes, it seems, mere atonement is not enough.
And Elish? “You remind me of that Jewish scholar — ” someone tells him, “ — what was his name? — the one who used to ride his horse in the synagogue yard on Saturdays.” It’s a reference to Elisha ben Abuya, the Rabbinic sage who embraced Hellenism, forever earning himself the title of Acher, “the Other One.”
Almost everybody and everything in this book is “other.” Elish, a self-described ars or Sephardic/Mizrahi greaser, is a sojourner in Israeli society. Dalia Shushan,another Mizrahi, comes from Sderot, a hardscrabble immigrant town. Like Cleveland, Detroit, or Liverpool, Sderot enjoys a mythic status as the nursery of raw musical talent. But that doesn’t mean that any Israeli actually wants to live there.
The best detective fiction takes us into a world inhabited by “others,” the people that most of us would rather forget: the poor, the marginalized, the dirty cops, the dead junkies with “eyes open, staring at you as if the last thing they saw in their lives was God.” Here in the Diaspora, where Israel is forever the “Start-Up Nation” of Jewish dreams, this is a discomfiting view. But it is real — and Shimon Adaf and Elish are clever, engaging Virgils, guiding us on a two-day trek to the dark heart of Tel Aviv, and of Israel.
Angus Smith is a retired Canadian intelligence official, writer and Jewish educator who lives in rural Nova Scotia.