Off the Shelf: Righteous and evil men by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

According to the website Masterclass (, “thrillers are dark, engrossing, and suspenseful plot-driven stories.” Why was I looking for a definition of the thriller genre? Well, the two books featured in this review –”The Accomplice” by Joseph Kanon (Atria Books) and “36 Righteous Men” by Steven Pressfield (W. W. Norton and Company) – seemed like thrillers, but had such different plots that at times it was difficult to believe they belonged to the same genre. However, both novels fit this definition, even though one takes place in the past and the other in the future. What they do have in common are Jewish themes: one uses Jewish history and the other Jewish folklore. 

“The Accomplice” opens in 1962 Germany, a time when people want to think of World War II as the distant past – a time to forget about those who once were part of the Nazi regime. Well, that’s not true everyone: Max Weill has dedicated this life to finding Nazis who escaped justice. Although a doctor before the war, Max is unable to practice since he was forced to help Dr. Otto Schramm perform experiences on children and adults in Auschwitz. Max, who still lives in Germany, wants Aaron, his American nephew, to continue his life’s mission. After all, Aaron works for the CIA, so Max believes he is more than up to the task. When Max becomes ill, Aaron finds himself unable to refuse his uncle’s last request. That request takes him to Buenos Aires and tangles him in a complex mission that makes Aaron ponder his own brand of morality.

Kanon’s novel is easy to read with more than enough fast-paced action and twists and turns to keep readers turning pages. However, what really stands out are the moral questions: How much do we owe our family? Must we right all wrongs, or is it better to let some remain buried in the past? And perhaps most importantly: what is the difference between justice and revenge? These questions make the novel perfect for book clubs whose members are interested in moral issues. Those who enjoy a good thriller – regardless of moral dilemmas – should also enjoy this work. 

While “The Accomplice” is a fictional take on real-life Nazi hunters, “36 Righteous Men” focuses on lamed vovnicks – the 36 unknown righteous men found in Jewish folklore, whose existence is said to sustain the world. This is not the first thriller’s plot to focus on someone trying to murder all the lamed vovnicks and destroy the world, but it’s the first to take place in the future. 

The year is 2034 and the United States is a mess. Global warming has created massive flooding, which has left New York City filled with homeless displaced by the rising waters. Hurricanes occur throughout the year. When several men are killed in unusual ways, police detectives James Manning and Covina “Dewey” Duwai are at odds with their supervisor, who believes the killings are connected to those trying to stop global warming. However, Manning and Dewey find themselves intrigued by another idea, especially when an unknown woman warns them that the 36 righteous are being killed. With the help of a rabbi and a Jewish anthropologist, the two police officers try to stop the killer before he can destroy the world.

Pressfield has written a thriller disguised as a police procedural, something that works really well. Readers see all the action through Dewey’s eyes, which means that the prose is crisp and the drama fast paced. The action is almost nonstop and the characters are interesting, but don’t detract from the action. Once the plot began, it was hard to put the book down. Its ending packed a powerful punch and events took a far different turn than I expected. This was one impressive thriller.