Today on the Vis­it­ing Scribe, D. A. Mis­hani con­tin­ues with his series The Mys­tery of the Hebrew Detec­tive,” where he has been inves­ti­gat­ing why it’s so dif­fi­cult to write a detec­tive in Israel. Read install­ment one here and install­ment two here. His first detec­tive nov­el, The Miss­ing File, was pub­lished by Harp­er. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Edi­tor’s Note: Below, D. A. Mis­hani con­tin­ues where he left off yes­ter­day: won­der­ing about the evo­lu­tion of pop­u­lar lit­er­ary gen­res in Israel and why pow­er­ful peo­ple did­n’t want the detec­tive” writ­ten at all. 

Here is, for exam­ple, an impor­tant piece of evi­dence I found dur­ing my inves­ti­ga­tion: a fierce arti­cle writ­ten on detec­tive fic­tion in a Hebrew news­pa­per in Pales­tine in the 1930’s, when the first trans­la­tions of detec­tive fic­tion to Hebrew were made (main­ly to Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries) and the first orig­i­nal detec­tive sto­ries in Hebrew were written:

Who is it that poi­sons the soul of our chil­dren with this so-called lit­er­a­ture – arous­es in them the most sav­age and hideous feel­ings? All over the Dias­po­ra, songs are being sung for the chil­dren of the Land of Israel (Pales­tine) and their com­plete, healthy souls – and who is this that dares to dam­age them, to dam­age the pure and the inno­cent with­in them? And why isn’t there any pub­lic pun­ish­ment for them? Aren’t we going to final­ly put an end to this filthy com­merce, com­merce in the souls of our children?”

The crit­ic’s empha­sis on the word com­merce” here is not inno­cent. I think it refers to the stereo­types of Old” and New” Jew – the first, the sup­pos­ed­ly uproot­ed dias­poric Jew, being con­cerned with mon­ey mak­ing, whilst the sec­ond, the new Pales­tin­ian Jew, the Hebrew, is con­cerned with cur­ing the nation, phys­i­cal­ly as well as spir­i­tu­al­ly. By that time, in the ear­ly 1920’s, pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture in gen­er­al and detec­tive fic­tion in par­tic­u­lar were already wide-spread in Yid­dish. In this sense, the trans­la­tions of detec­tive sto­ries into Hebrew in Pales­tine were per­ceived as a threat to the puri­ty of the Zion­ist Cul­tur­al Revolution.

It’s inter­est­ing to see that the defend­ers of detec­tive fic­tion in this debate, whilst reject­ing the argu­ments against the genre, used the same nation­al ter­mi­nol­o­gy in order to pro­mote it. Their argu­men­ta­tion relied on the con­tri­bu­tion of detec­tive fic­tion to the nation­al project. Their main argu­ment for intro­duc­ing detec­tive fic­tion into Hebrew lit­er­a­ture referred to the gen­re’s pos­si­ble con­tri­bu­tion to the revival of mod­ern Hebrew lan­guage. They noticed the pop­u­lar­i­ty of detec­tive fic­tion among Jew­ish read­ers in Yid­dish and argued that in order to per­suade Jew­ish youth to learn Hebrew, it was cru­cial to devel­op Hebrew detec­tive fic­tion that would attract readers. 

These argu­ments have marked the con­di­tion of detec­tive fic­tion writ­ten or trans­lat­ed into Hebrew from that moment on, and maybe until this very day. This is the rea­son for the rel­a­tive­ly few trans­la­tions of for­eign crime fic­tion, at least until recent years, and why I found myself, at the age of 11 or 12, in front of emp­ty library shelves. 

This is also the answer to the ques­tion I asked myself: How did I come to read The Hound of the Baskervilles at the age of 8 or 9? Detec­tive fic­tion, even when it was trans­lat­ed, was clas­si­fied as chil­dren’s fic­tion. Thus, until recent­ly, Arthur Conan Doyle’s nov­els and short sto­ries were pub­lished in Hebrew edi­tions aimed at chil­dren – and most of the orig­i­nal detec­tive fic­tion in Hebrew from the 1930’s until the late 1980’s was writ­ten for chil­dren or was con­sid­ered chil­dren’s literature. 

In fact, it was only in the late 1980’s that detec­tive fic­tion real­ly appeared in Hebrew adult fic­tion, name­ly in the form of two ser­i­al detec­tive-nov­els writ­ten by two female authors, Batya Gur and Shu­lamit Lapid. Gur’s A Sat­ur­day Morn­ing Mur­der, intro­duc­ing police inspec­tor Michael Ohay­on, was first pub­lished in 1988, and Lapid’s Local Paper, intro­duc­ing ama­teur sleuth Lizi Badi­hi, was first pub­lished in 1989. Both gained com­mer­cial suc­cess and some crit­i­cal appre­ci­a­tion and both revealed the sec­ond prob­lem of writ­ing a detec­tive nov­el in Israel – that is, the prob­lem of the Mizrahi (or Sephara­di) protagonist. 

Read the fourth install­ment of D. A. Mis­hani’s The Mys­tery of the Hebrew Detec­tive” here.

D. A. Mis­hani | Jew­ish Book Coun­cilD. A. Mis­hani is an Israeli crime writer, edi­tor, and lit­er­ary schol­ar, spe­cial­iz­ing in the his­to­ry of detec­tive fic­tion. His first detec­tive nov­el, The Miss­ing File, the first in a lit­er­ary detec­tive series fea­tur­ing police Inspec­tor Avra­ham Avra­ham, was pub­lished in the U.S. by Harper­Collins. The sec­ond nov­el in the series, A Pos­si­bil­i­ty of Vio­lence, will be pub­lished in the US in 2014.