Celebrating Jewish Literature: Two mysteries and a thriller

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

  • The most Jewish content: “Sunset Empire”

A new subgenre of detective fiction features alternative versions of our world. For example, in “Sunset Empire: A Morris Baker Novel” by Josh Weiss (Grand Central), while World War II and the Holocaust did take place, Senator Joseph McCarthy, rather than Dwight D. Eisenhower, was elected the 34th president of the United State. The result is agents (known as Hueys) from McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee Office act as their own private police force, discriminating against Asians, Jews and anyone else they suspect of supporting the communist cause. The U.S. is also fighting a futile war in Korea, and public opinion about Koreans changes when a member of the American Korean community sets off a bomb in a department store. 

In the first novel in the series, “Beat the Devils,” Baker worked as a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department as the way of atoning for the activities he was forced to take part in during the Holocaust. (To read The Reporter’s review of the book, click here.) After difficulties with both the Hueys and fellow policemen, Morris now works as a private detective. Life takes an interesting turn when the wife of Henry Kissinger hires him to find her husband. Kissinger works for Vice President Richard Nixon and was in town to meet members of the Japanese government. Morris is also asked to look into the disappearance of four men from the synagogue to which he belongs. Could there be a tie between their disappearances and the camps to which Korean members of the community are being transported?

The plot of “Sunset Empire” is a wild ride and includes real life characters, although with very alternative life trajectories. Morris is a great character: he’s irritable, argumentative and sometimes his own worst enemy. But he also fights to discover the truth of what’s happening at the risk of his own life. Readers who have not read the first novel (but please do because you’ll love it) will still be able to follow the plot because Weiss gives enough details to answer any questions they may have. At the end my review of “Beat the Devils,” I wondered if that work would be the first of the series. Now I’m hoping “Sunset Empire” is not the last. 


  • The next most Jewish content: “The Chateau”

Thrillers are not my favorite genre because the characters are usually unpleasant and definitely not people I want to spend time with, even in a book. Fortunately, that is not true of “The Chateau” by Jaclyn Goldis (Emily Bestler Books), some of whose characters are so appealing you might want to be friends with them. 

The novel begins when four friends visit Provence to stay at the grand manor owned by Seraphine Demargelasse. Three – Darcy, Jade and Vix – met while studying abroad 20 years before. Arabelle, whose grandmother who worked for Seraphine, became friends with them when the college students first visited the chateau. Now Seraphine has invited them for a visit without revealing the reason behind the invitation. 

It’s clear that all the women have secrets. Darcy, who is Seraphine’s granddaughter, believes her husband is having an affair with Jade. Jade knows that Seraphine betrayed her father’s family during the Holocaust and wants to regain lost property she believes is in the chateau. Vix, who is fighting breast cancer, has been asked to bring specific tools and wonders what Seraphine wants her to do. Arabelle is generally dissatisfied with her life and a bit resentful of the other women. Then there is Ralph, the mysterious caretaker, who doesn’t know much about gardening. When a murder occurs, it becomes clear that someone in the household is the killer, but who and why?

“The Chateau” is an extremely well done thriller. At one point, I wrote down four predictions and had the satisfaction of having three of them come true, while I was close on the fourth. However, there were so many twists and turns I didn’t anticipate that made the work feel incredibly suspenseful. As with any thriller, people are not always what they seem, but, in this case, there were numerous surprises that took my breath away. As for the novel’s ending, my reaction was, “No, it can’t end now!” Anyone who loves thrillers will want to add this to their list of summer reading.


  • The least Jewish content: “Karl Marx, Private Eye” 

Confession time: the only Jewish character in this mystery is Karl Marx, who considered himself an atheist. That would make his daughter, Eleanor, another character in the novel, Jewish by patrilineal descent. Since nothing connected to Judaism happens in Jim Feast’s “Karl Marx, Private Eye” (PM Press), why did I ask for a review copy? How could I resist a book that calls Marx a private eye and includes a 16-year-old Sherlock Holmes? Yes, that Sherlock Holmes, as in the character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works. 

The title of the book is misleading: Marx does not actually work as a private eye. Instead he and the young Sherlock look to solve several murders that take place at a Bohemian spa. Although Marx and Eleanor have befriended the youth, they keep him at arm’s length because they are staying at the spa under assumed names since authorities consider Marx a radical troublemaker. The question becomes which of the characters will be able to uncover the true killer and the reason behind the murders.

“Karl Marx, Private Eye” definitely is not a contemporary action-packed private detective novel. The writing style is old-fashioned as if to mimic writers from Doyle’s time period. There’s also a great deal of philosophical discussion. I managed to guess the murderer, mostly by process of elimination. I was not sure every question was successfully answered, but that’s a minor quibble. Although the novel moved very slowly, it was good fun to read about Eleanor, an unusual woman for her time period, and see Feast’s idea of how young Sherlock developed the skills he used so well later in his life.