An Israeli Graduate student dies in a suspicious scuba-diving accident after challenging his advisor’s standards for evaluating poetry during a televised seminar. Israel’s poet Laureate, Shaul Tirosh, whose word has decided the future of aspiring poets for better or worse, is found bludgeoned to death in his office. An audiocassette of poetry readings by Jewish Soviet dissidents during the 1960s is erased. Michael Ohayon, Chief of the Special Investigation Unit, is poring over pages of literary criticism, looking for clues.
In the world of Israeli author Batya Gur’s detective novel Literary Murder: A Critical Case, poetry matters. It matters so much it becomes a matter of life and death. At Hebrew University’s Department of Literary Studies, where Laureate Shaul Tirosh was Dean, teaching poetry is not a job. It is a lifetime calling and all-consuming passion. Chief Michael Ohayon finds himself sitting in a seminar taught by Shaul Tirosh’s most unwavering disciple, trying to understand the soul of this disciple who devoted his life to praising the work of another.
Nevertheless, the puzzle of the double murder continues to grow. There are several suspects with possible motives — not necessarily poetic — for killing the manipulative, womanizing Tirosh. But who would want to kill the graduate student Iddo Dudai, who was writing his dissertation on Tirosh’s poetry and was such an amicable family man? Is it possible that the Department of Literary Studies lost two members within forty-eight hours by sheer coincidence?
As the investigation continues, the personal lives of the victims and suspects gradually unfold. The enormous impact and control that Tirosh exercised over his admirers and detractors reveal the hazards of his meteoric literary success. Nobody could remain indifferent to Tirosh. He was either worshipped for his poems or loathed for his conduct. Even his worst critic resorted to quoting Tirosh, claiming that his poetry was founded on “feet of melting snow.”
But did Tirosh impose his alien European mannerisms — complete with his trademark, a red carnation in his lapel buttonhole — on his provincial readers, or did he merely respond to their fantasies of how a poet should conduct himself? Was his poetry indeed the source of his power, or was it his dominant personality?
The spell of Tirosh’s poetry, evoked in such lines as: “At dawn violets wilted in your skin,” is similar to the mesmerizing effect of opera singing in Kay Nolte Smith’s novel Elegy for a Soprano. Like the opera singer’s admirers in Smith’s novel, Tirosh’s fervent fans pay the price for their reverence — in self-abdication. Chief Ohayon finds himself wondering why an exalted artistic experience entails idolizing the artist.
Nevertheless, if you think that the point of Literary Murder is merely to show us the darker, tyrannical side of a literary genius, you are in for a surprise. Literary Murder is also similar to the movie Love Letters (for which Rand wrote the script): it portrays the moral crime of faking one’s soul. On a higher level, Literary Murder deals with great timeless issues such as the crucial role of art in man’s life, the mystery of the creative process (Tirosh wins a challenge to write a sonnet in five minutes), and the special status of the artist, which Tirosh exploited beyond reason and dignity.
Novelist Batya Gur creates an entertaining contrast between the savvy, down-to-earth police investigators and the overtly refined intellectuals of academia. There is plenty of light-hearted humor in the encounters between professors and detectives. Tirhos’s disciple describes the police contemptuously as an organization "that hands out traffic reports and breaks up demonstrations." A policeman grunts that an ascetic, fragile student looks like she is made of porcelain and will shatter if he tries to detain her.
Yet, Chief Michael Ohayon, a former student of Medieval Literature, provides a bridge between the two worlds. Having left academia for “the real world,” Ohayon is drawn back to the literary arena, cheerfully resuming his friendship with his former advisor — until the advisor becomes a suspect.
The tone of the book becomes somber when the story takes us back in time to a Soviet gulag during the 1960s, where Jewish inmates secretly learn Hebrew. One of them even tries his hand in writing poetry. Then the story takes us to South Carolina twenty years later, where the last survivor of that gulag, terminally ill in a nursing home, is the only witness who can confirm for Ohayon what Ohayon already suspects. But can Ohayon reveal his suspicions to the survivor, knowing that the truth may kill him?
Literary Murder: A Critical Case serves as a good reminder that there is life in Israel beyond fighting and self-preservation as portrayed in the news headlines. American readers may find the Israeli names and setting challenging, but the fact that the English translation has been in print since 1994 is a good indication that the effort is worth it.
Michelle Fram Cohen, a native of Israel, has lived in the United States since 1981. She holds an M.A. in Comparative Literature and works as a computer programmer and a freelance translator and writer. Her writings have been published in Navigator, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and Full Context. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband and son.