Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Faye Kellerman

Today I am sick.

Instead of delving into Great Literature, I am currently rereading one of my favorite Faye Kellerman books, called Day of Atonement. It's #5 in her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series, which centers on an Orthodox Jewish homicide detective for the LAPD and his wife, who often serves as his unofficial partner in mystery-solving.

What I love about Day of Atonement is both Kellerman's hard-hitting, down-to-earth prose and dialogue, in addition to the strong sense of authenticity that pervades its setting in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn during the Jewish High Holidays. I did a brief post awhile ago protesting Kellerman's confusion about New York State geography and weather in Sanctuary, but this particular book was obviously written by a cultural insider and is as real as they come. Both Faye and her husband Jonathan Kellerman are Modern Orthodox Jews, as opposed to the Haredi religion and lifestyle practiced by many of the characters of Day of Atonement. But I think participating in modern society while following ancient customs is chiefly what makes Kellerman's Peter/Rina books so unique: the contrast between the two worlds can be pretty powerful at times. Rina fully embodies this, as she is both a traditional woman who delights in being a wife and mother and a very tough lady who is not afraid to speak her mind or put herself in harm's way. In Day of Atonement a troubled boy runs away with a psychopath on Rosh Hashanah, prompting Peter, although he's supposed to be on vacation, to enlist Rina's assistance in searching Brooklyn (primarily Borough Park and Williamsburg). And if that wasn't bad enough, the boy's grandmother is Peter's long-lost biological mother! Of course, the whole fiasco eventually transfers to LA, which is Peter's home turf, so clearly things get complicated. But Kellerman never loses sight of the plot and is highly effective at depicting the deep and conflicting emotions of her characters. She's every bit as skilled at illustrating the Jewish community as she is at getting inside the head of a violent lunatic.

And it's interesting, though, because I mentioned in my Ladies Against Feminism post that one of the related blogs where I frequently lurk is run by a young observant Jewish woman (she's my age) from Israel called Domestic Felicity. Anna T. and Faye Kellerman may both be technically the same denomination of the same religion (Modern Orthodox Judaism) but they're so far apart in terms of lifestyle and beliefs on the role and proper behavior of women (Anna has a large fundamentalist Christian readership). I think some people mistakenly see religious Jews as a monolithic group, but that is definitely not the case. (The Hasidism, by the way, are actually divided into different sects – in other words, calling someone a Hasid is akin to calling someone a Protestant.) Much like Chaim Potok's wonderful novel The Chosen, Faye Kellerman's mysteries are both educative and entertaining. I strongly recommend them to anyone who enjoys crime fiction but is looking for something a little different. The first one, The Ritual Bath, really isn't that great (since it was, after all, Kellerman's very first foray into writing), but the rest have increased in quality as Kellerman has become more adept at the art of composing good detective stories.


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