Let’s face it: Jewish women have what it takes to be good detectives. Nosey and nudgey? That’s curious and persistent turned on its head. Worrywarts?
Keeps our radar alert for trouble. Most important: we sure know when something doesn’t smell kosher.
So it comes as no surprise that, you’ll pardon the expression, one can almost make a minyan from the number of Jewish women solving mysteries and murders in modern crime fiction.
An entire sub-genre of Jewish female sleuths has taken root, and flourished, on whodunit bookshelves. Smart and funny or tough and vulnerable, these women are as different in character and lifestyle as there are recipes for kugel. From religiously observant to circling Judaism’s fringes, what they share is a connection to the criminal justice system as private investigators, police detectives or work involving police.
So to juice your summer reading with twists of tension, sides of humour or plots as thick as barley soup, herewith a primer.
The Molly Blume series by Rochelle Krich will keep you turning pages and scarfing mandelbrot on Shabbat afternoons. Molly, a Californian from an Orthodox family, writes a police blotter column that launches her foray into crime-solving – and while she’s fasting on the 17th day of Tammuz, no less.
Krich writes smartly, and at least two plots are probably off-beat for crime fiction: a rabbi’s daughter runs away with a man she meets online and Molly must find her; in another, the murder of her best friend years ago haunts Molly, who stands her ground against a hard-bitten detective who closes the case when certain pieces of Kabbalah-linked evidence suggest otherwise.
Bonus points for Molly’s large and likeable family who appear throughout the series, especially Bubbie G, a tender neshamah and Holocaust survivor with whom Molly has a special bond. Try to read the series in sequence because its debut, Blues in the Night, sets up a storyline (can you say shidduch?) that unfolds deliciously with each successive book.
Far from the lights of Los Angeles is the Ruby-the-Rabbi’s-Wife mysteries by Sharon Kahn. Ruby is a widow who lives with her dog Oy Vay in small-town Texas, where her husband was the temple rabbi before his untimely death. Kahn deftly uses food – matzah balls, lox, chopped liver – as entrees to murder and mayhem at the temple, the local bagel bakery and even on a train ride through Canada’s Rockies.
A relentlessly curious Ruby is teamed with a recurring cast of temple characters (a nudnik new rabbi, a busybody with food issues) for a breezy, fun read with surprising plot twists. What works particularly well is e-mail between Ruby and her friend Nan in Seattle; their online conversations are witty and amusing, alerting Ruby to danger or ironing out kinks in Ruby’s sleuthing. A word of caution: the books’ cover art will make you hungry.
Nina Fischman could be Ruby’s younger sister. But she’s not. She’s the creation of Marissa Piesman, who has taken New York Jewish female angst at being 30-something and single, attached it to a legal mind that represents poor souls in Housing Court and given it a smart mouth that belongs to Nina.
Think Perry Mason’s brain in Rhoda Morgenstern’s head. With New York as a backdrop and namedrop (Zabar’s, Riverside Drive), Nina gets her start as a gumshoe thanks to her sharp, elderly mother with whom she enjoys a good kibbitz and an even better rapport. When old women in neighbourhood apartments start dying unexpectedly, Mrs. Fischman gets suspicious and Nina is sufficiently intrigued to start snooping around.
Nina would be the first to admit she’s a lox, bagel and cream cheese Jew, but Piesman messes with Nina’s head (and heart) by throwing an observant Jewish district attorney into the tumult of Unorthodox Practices, the kickoff novel in the series.
From Los Angeles to New York and back: Krich delivers another crime series with one heck of a twist. Homicide detective Jessica Drake, tough, empathetic and raised Episcopalian, learns that her mother is secretly a Holocaust survivor. Jessica shadow boxes with Yiddishkeit but ultimately goes for it, finding in rituals some relief from the tension of her work. She takes it slowly, lighting Shabbos candles, eating by their flame, ignoring a ringing phone to keep reading in the stillness at the table. When she looks for kosher challah in the supermarket, you can’t help but cheer her on to the finish line.
While Jessica grapples with her new identity, Tess Monaghan has no such difficulty. Yes, Tess is Jewish (her mother was a Weinstein) and she’d be the first to tell you so, but that’s about the long and short of it. A self-employed private investigator in Baltimore, Tess has won her creator, Laura Lippman, a slew of literary awards. Tess is sharp, quick-thinking and quite fearless. The plots move along briskly, and Tess’ love of her hometown shines through so often you’ll feel like you know Baltimore like the back of your hand. While Tess’ Jewishness is not germane to the series, it does have a starring role in By a Spider’s Thread, when an Orthodox Jewish businessman hires Tess to find his missing wife and children.
No primer would be complete without mention of the Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker mysteries by Faye Kellerman. This popular and prolific series had me hooked from the get-go with the mikvah murder mystery. The first few novels kept up a tantalizing storyline involving Rina, a young widow with two sons in yeshiva, and Decker of the Los Angeles Police Department. But as time went on, I found Rina increasingly annoying, and some of the plotlines seemed way off the charts. But there’s at least one good made-for-TV movie in the bunch.