D.A Mishani is an Israeli literature scholar who specializes in the history of detective fiction. And recently he became a novelist as well — his debut, The Missing File, was published in the U.S. in March. Its hero is police inspector Avraham Avraham, a lonely character who, on most nights, eats dinner in front of his TV. Only Avraham’s parents call to wish him mazel tov on his birthday, and he can’t solve the case at the center of the story because he refuses to suspect anyone. He is also one of the few detectives ever written in Hebrew.
I talked to Mishani on the phone on a Thursday night, close to midnight his time, about why there are so few Israeli detective novels, whether writing about crime can make you paranoid, and why it was important to him to write a detective who believes everyone is innocent.
Why are there so few detective novels written in Hebrew?
“Israeli literature, when it emerged in the mid-19th century, started very much within the Jewish national project of reviving the Hebrew language. So the literature was really connected to national issues. It had to deal with Jewish identity, Jewish past, Jewish future. The detective is the most global and universal of genres — it deals with violence, with urban existence — which didn’t have anything to do with those national themes. In the 1930s, when the first translations of the Sherlock Holmes stories were published, they were denounced. Because Hebrew is a sacred language and even when we’re secularizing it, it should still be used for national purposes.
“There’s also another, sociological reason. In the States, when you think of a protagonist, you can think of Dirty Harry. Or the sheriff in Westerns. But in Israel, the protagonists have always been ‘the soldier’ or ‘the spy.’ Traditionally members of the police in Israel were Sephardic Jews. They often came from lower classes. It was — I think maybe it’s changing now — but it was very difficult to conceive of a police officer as a hero.”
Where is your police officer from?
“He is from a family of Sephardic Jews. He comes from a suburb of Tel Aviv. It’s not a poor suburb, but lower middle class. He’s not glamorous.”
So in a way, your novel is political.
“In a way. It was not what I intended to do. I wanted to write the detective that I like in Hebrew, and to try to see if it’s possible to bring this genre that I admire to Israel.”
In The Missing File, Avraham, your detective, says Israeli writers don’t write detective novels because there are no mysterious crimes in Israel for detectives to crack.
“The detective novel emerged in the middle of the 19th century in London, New York, Paris. One of the main reasons is that people were living in urban communities. The detective is the guy that goes around in the city where nobody knows each other. When there’s a serious crime going on and nobody knows who did it. In Israel, you have less ways to disappear. It’s supposed to be a community where everybody knows each other.”
Do you think that’s changing?
“I’m sure. The fact that there are more and more crime novels in Israel — original and in translation — is one of the symptoms of a society that is changing from communal to a society that is more urban.”
So are detective novels symptoms of an unhealthy society?
“I don’t know if it’s a question of moving from a bad system to a good system or the other way around. It’s two different social control systems. Israel is moving from a more communal social control system to a more, I would say, modern, Western system. And … it’s for sure good for a crime writer.”
Does spending so much time thinking about detective novels make you paranoid?
“[laughs] I teach a class at the University of Tel Aviv about the history of the detective novel. On the first day, I warn the students that they should be aware that to every student who takes this class strange things happen. I’ve had students that things were stolen from them during class. You know, very, very strange things. It is part of the detective’s world. The detective — one of the things that he teaches us is to be paranoid. The detective tells us: ‘Look around you. Everyone around you is a suspect.’
“In a way, it’s something I’m trying to write against. When I started The Missing File, I told myself that instead of a detective who frames people, I want a detective who acquits people — who sees people as innocent, not as guilty. This is, in fact, Avraham’s problem. He believes everyone is innocent. Sadly, he’s mistaken. In the second novel [Possibility of Violence, coming out in the U.S. next April], he’s traumatized. His lesson was, ‘Don’t trust anybody.’ I hope that in the end, he understands he shouldn’t be like that. It’s something — if you read too many detective stories there is that danger.”
Do you think that there are certain rules that you have to follow as a detective novelist to stay within the tradition of the genre? Raymond Chandler, for instance, made a list of commandments.
“I didn’t read the commandments. But writing in a genre, the greatest thing about it is that you don’t have to pretend that you are original all the time. You can pay tribute to other writers. I always wanted to add my own detective to this crowded stage of literary detectives. But I didn’t want him to dance there by himself. I wanted him to join this ongoing dance of hundreds of wonderful detectives that were written in all languages.”
I’m bad at reading detective novels. The ending always shocks me. Do you have any tips? Do you make Excel spreadsheets?
“Maybe I’ll surprise you, but I’m bad at it too. I never know who the murderer is. When I watch movies on TV with my wife she always asks me, ‘So you’re the expert. Who’s the killer?’ And I never know. I always go for the craziest thing. Probably the guy that we saw for one second in the third minute of the movie. And normally she’s right and I’m wrong. That’s the embarrassing thing.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Lidia Jean Kott is an intern with NPR Books.