Every detective has their own little quirk, have you noticed? They drink too much or they are angst-ridden, they are unemployed or are former cops (or, if they have it really rough all of the above!). Maybe D.A. Mishani's detective Avraham Avraham's quirk is that he has no quirks. He is one of the more mild-mannered, regular-sort-of-guy detectives I have come across in a while. He doesn't even live in Tel Aviv proper but in a suburb called Holon, which sounds pretty mild, too (read that as boring, I'm afraid). He is introduced in The Missing File (Tik Needar in Hebrew, translated into English by Steven Cohen), the first of what will shortly be three crime novels (I believe the next book in the series will soon be out in Israel).
Upon introduction to Avi Avraham you get a sense that he is a little uncertain of his abilities despite his superiors' support and admiration of him. There is even just a slight tinge of the misfit about him, or at least how he sees himself. On the night he meets the mother whose missing son will throw his life into an out of control spiral, Detective Avraham is getting ready to celebrate his thirty-eighth birthday. Typical bachelor, he stops by the supermarket and picks up a single-portion tub of spicy tahini, fresh baked bread and tomatoes which he plans to eat in front of the TV. He has a fondness for crime shows and detective novels. Maybe this is his quirk, he watches old episodes of Law and Order looking for mistakes in the investigation and working out in his mind how he would have solved the crime.
It's ironic that he tries to show-up the fictional characters up when he himself has sent home this worried mother telling her her son has only been missing for a few hours and will show up very soon. The boy is sixteen and you know how teenagers are. He responds to her concerns in a manner he will soon regret.
"'Do you know why there are no detective novels in Hebrew?' he asked."
"'Why doesn't Israel produce books like those of Agatha Christie, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?'"
". . . because we don't have crimes like that. We don't have serial killers; we don't have kidnappings; and there aren't many rapists out there attacking women on the streets. Here, when a crime is committed, it's usually the neighbor, the uncle, the grandfather, and there's no need for a complex investigation to find the criminal and clear up the mystery. There's simply no mystery here. The explanation is always the simplest. What I am trying to say is that I think there is very little chance that something has happened to you son."
Famous last words. The next day he imagines the missing boy and the possible scenarios, but the boy does not return. And then Avi begins to get worried and the investigation begins in earnest, as it should have from the start. But hindsight is 20/20 and at the time it seemed reasonable that the boy would return on his own. Only he doesn't. Days pass with no sign of him. His mother is quiet, concerned but strangely seems to be weighed down by a sense of inertia. Her husband is away at sea working on a cargo ship and not due to return for several more days. She has younger children to attend to and when Avraham asks her questions she either doesn't seem to know her son as well as she should or is simply not very forthcoming.
As he expands his investigation and begins questioning the Sharabi's neighbors about the missing boy, one neighbor takes a particular interest in the situation. Ze'ev Avni is a high school teacher and writer who lives with his wife and young son in the same building as the Sharabis. Ze'ev had tutored Ofer in English until very recently. He is a curious character and tries to insinuate himself into the investigation for reasons that are not particularly altruistic. His motives only muddy the waters, but in a most interesting way, which the reader learns first hand as Ze'ev narrates part of the story.
Mishani's Detective Avraham might be somewhat bland on first appearance, but only deceptively so. This is a story that is filled with deceptive red herrings leading the reader one place and then another. It is all subtly done. I didn't realize just how good the story was until that last turn and then backtracked in my mind about what was said and done. Avraham is a very human and average character and is fileld with uncertainties, not surprising considering his initial misstep that will dog him through the rest of the story and into the next book. A conference abroad and younger and ambitious colleagues will show him up, but his tenacity and skill will win out in the end.
I like how Mishani fills in the backstory and gives Avraham a bit more excitement in his life including a potential relationship with another (foreign) police officer (to be expanded upon in the next book). And I like all the details of place. Until I started reading Israeli literature I had no thoughts of traveling there or even much curiosity about what it was like to live there. Now each book broadens my perspective just a bit, sheds light on what life is like and I can imagine someday traveling there. So all the extra bits he adds to the story to set the scene fill in that imaginary picture. Tel Aviv and therefore Holon sits on the coast looking out to sea, and the sea is very important to this story.
"The sea had become an inescapable backdrop to the story. Not the beach, which Avraham was familiar, just like everyone else, and where he'd go sometimes on a Saturday in the summer, without removing his shirt. This was a different kind of sea, a sea that was also a place or work, a sea that was a distance between father and son, wife and husband."
And Holon may seem boring to those who live and know Tel Aviv, but it seems to have an appeal nonetheless.
"He drove up and down Sokolov, Holon's main commercial street, his eyes on the crowds of young people who filled it. Thursday, 11:30 p.m.--the cafés were packed, with lines stretching outside. The street belonged to the adults during the day, the shopkeepers and the shoppers; but at night the youth ruled. He slowed down almost to a standstill. When he was young, there wasn't a single café in Holon--only one or two pizza stands that opened, closed, then reopened under different names, and a confectionary store where he worked one summer. For now, he had no way of knowing whether the cafés or one of their customers were part of the story he needed to listen to."
These books are not at all political rather they are crime stories set in the domestic sphere. The mystery of the missing boy is ultimately solved. It's a case that will leave an indelible mark on Detective Avraham for a variety of reasons and will haunt him well into the next book, which I am reading now, A Possibility of Violence. I think I like even more than the first book. Mishani is a writer to watch I think. This first book was shortlisted for a CWA International Dagger and the second is in the list of potential entries (I'm watching for the longlist now).