Off the Shelf: A thoughtful detective

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some detective novels are filled with actions and dialogue. Descriptions are at a minimum and the focus of the detective’s thoughts is on “whodunnit.” Anyone looking for that type of mystery can skip the rest of this review because one of my notes on “One Mile and Two Days Before Sunset” by Shimon Adaf (Picador) is that the main character, Elish Ben Zaken, former rock music critic turned detective, spends way too much time thinking about things not connected with the mystery. Adaf’s work is as much a philosophical treatise – on a variety of topics – as it is a mystery. 

Readers may be put off by the early part of the novel. Although the prologue sets up later action, the opening chapter features Elish giving a complex and disjointed lecture about the connection between serial killers and poets that came across as absurd. Elish seems to realize his lecture is going nowhere, which came as a bit of a relief. He’s helping out a former friend, a professor, whom he met when they were philosophy students. Elish, however, never finished his degree. 

When approached by a police detective to take a case on the quiet, Elish is resistant. He prefers to focuses on cases that feature what he refers to as “small human sins.” These do not include the suicide of a different philosophy professor whose brother is a prominent politician. When reviewing the file, he sees that the case might be tied to the recent murder of rock singer Dalia Shushan. Elish has a connection to her beyond having once been a critic. (Although there is a section showing Dalia and Elish together in the past, it was not clear – at least to this reader – exactly what occurred.) That connection is why Elish decides to look into the case: he comes to believe the person accused of being Dalia’s killer is innocent – and that the two cases are definitely connected.

Unfortunately, the mystery takes a backseat to Elish’s life, which is not nearly as interesting. Readers learn about his problematic relationship with his sister and mother, and his inability to form close connections. There is also a great deal of information about the rock music scene in Israel and how Elish feels it has deteriorated. His career as a critic stopped after he published a book about the musicians that caused him to be banned from music venues. Although Elish never received his degree in philosophy, he seems to view the world from that angle and the novel is filled with his musings.

The novel also offers a view of Israel as a Jewish nation. It takes place during the Iraq War when Israelis worried they were about to be bombed due to U.S. actions. When giving an example of human behavior, it was fun to see Elish’s friend offer a story from the Talmud. Although none of the main characters are particularly religious, Elish’s mother is happy when he travels to be with her for the Friday night Shabbat meal.

At times, it feels as if the mystery gets lost in the shuffle, but readers who persevere will be treated to a very clever solution and a serious and interesting moral dilemma, which could generate a great deal of discussion. (It would spoil the plot to say more here.) That made it worth finishing the novel. 

“One Mile and Two Days Before Sunset” is the first book in a trilogy. But after reading it, I felt the need to take a break. That doesn’t mean that at some point I won’t read the next two works, but this novel felt like a satisfying place to take a pause.