How Batya Gur Created Classic Detective Fiction in an Israeli Key

July 11, 2019 | Sean Cooper
About the author:

In her short literary career, begun at age thirty-nine and ending with her death at fifty-seven in 2005, Batya Gur wrote six bestselling crime novels that established her as Israel’s leading practitioner of the genre. A former high-school teacher, Gur claimed to have modeled her books’ hero, an academic-turned-detective named Michael Ohayon, on herself. Praising her works, which have been translated into several languages, Sean Cooper examines what makes them especially Israeli:

In each of the six books, Gur dispatches Ohayon into a tightknit, insular community where the murder of one of their own, and with one or more of their own somehow implicated in the death, threatens to collapse the foundation of that community. . . . Gur’s communities are stand-ins for Israeli society writ large, whether a kibbutz, chamber orchestra, university literature department, or a psychoanalytic teaching institute.

Gur emerged with her bestseller debut, in 1988, when detective fiction written in Hebrew had been all but dormant for five decades. As a consumer product for popular entertainment, the crime fiction of the 1930s was published in small books on cheap paper intended to be discarded, like a periodical, after it was read. Dismissed in their day by some critics as a frivolous abasement of the language, these disposable tomes were supported by others as an effective means of promoting basic Hebrew literacy. The enterprise did not sustain itself much past a decade, and save for the occasional children’s book, readers of crime fiction had to turn to translations of English works to get their fix.

Unlike [the celebrated English-language crime novelist] Ross Macdonald’s free-floating, solitary Lew Archer, Gur’s detective, Ohayon, is an institution man, respectful of his own, of others, striving for promotions, deferential to leaders, occasionally sentimental, with a firm but not insoluble belief in the sanctity of a group’s code of conduct and declared intentions. When a subordinate chafes at judicial procedures that slow up their investigation, Ohayon snaps back, “Don’t knock it. . . . You want to live in a place like Argentina? It’s a price we have to pay.”

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