So on the one hand this is a tale of Meyer Landesman, a jaded cop investigating a chess-prodigy’s murder and stirring up half-forgotten personal problems with his own late father, his ex-wife and his old neighbourhood. And on the other hand it’s a tale of a marginalised community facing politically-inspired dismantling and the way powerful business and religious interests are exploiting the uncertainty. Sounds like Chinatown. Sounds a bit like Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue, but without the 70s Blaxploitation martial-arts stuff and with better jokes.
You can read it like that if you want. It works on that level. Just one thing, though; in the history I did at school the UN granted sovereignty to the state of Israel in what had been British-administered Palestine, in perpetuity and with quite a bit of friction over the status of the indigenous Arabs. In this version, the US created a Jewish state in Alaska in 1940 on a finite lease. (There really was a plan like this). And now, with time running out, people are looking for ways to cash in or just survive, and the police department aren’t getting much support in their final months of jurisdiction. The Native American Tlingit nation are a bit more helpful, but not everyone in this state trusts them. Other consequences of this changed chronology are best kept as surprises. Or shocks.
The full details of the state Meyer’s in (figuratively and literally, the state of Sitka) emerge slowly in a snappy prose style. There are odd detours, as in Dashiell Hammett, but the crime is solved, the reasons for it made plain and the world in which it happens allowed to unfold for us without long gobbets of exposition. Normally, I find his habitual gushy prose style a bit wearing, but he’s following the rules and writing like Chandler here and it helps. I just wish he’d finally selected a better title from the ones he tried out.
By Tat Wood