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Friday, 14 April 2017

Golem galore with the Kellermans

I've been reading Jonathan Kellerman's books since he started writing in the mid-80s: I have fun with them (well, sort of, since they are all "murder" stories) and, when I wish to have my mind spend some time away from extenuating work, I open one of his suspense novels and... relax!
Jonathan Kellerman lives in Los Angeles with his wife Faye Kellerman, herself a well-known bestselling crime writer. They have four children. Their oldest, Jesse Kellerman, is a bestselling novelist and award-winning playwright. Their youngest, Aliza Kellerman, co-wrote Prism, a young adult novel published in 2009, with her mother.
So, a veritable family of writers.
As if not content at each being authors on their own, father and son decided to form a joint enterprise and wrote two strange, supernatural crime novels together: in 2014 they published The Golem of Hollywood, and in 2015 The Golem of Paris. Below I'm posting two reviews, respectively...

Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman Tell a Whopper With Everything in It

Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman’s father-and-son opus, “The Golem of Hollywood,” is as ambitious as it is completely ridiculous — and that’s not altogether a bad thing. The novel’s protagonist captures some of the story’s scale and confusion: Jacob Lev is a hard-drinking, twice-divorced Harvard-dropout-turned-hardboiled-Los-Angeles-cop (got all that?) who’s already thoroughly washed up at the tender age of 31. But unlike most world-weary cops before him, Lev also happens to be a lapsed Orthodox Jew, the son of a Talmud scholar father and depressive artist mother. It’s his religious heritage, admittedly rare among cops, that gets him recruited to a special branch of the LAPD on the same morning that he wakes up with a mysterious — and, obviously, totally hot — woman.

Soon after this dream woman vanishes, Jacob is summoned to the scene of a grisly murder, in an abandoned house in an off-the-grid part of the Hollywood Hills. There, Jacob discovers some vomit and a decapitated head that “glistened surreally, like a gag item fished from the ninety-nine-cent bin at a novelty shop.” There’s no body in sight, and the crime scene is otherwise immaculate, but for the Hebrew word for justice, tzedek, burned on the wall.

From this premise the father-and-son writing team spin a tale spanning many millennia and several countries and countless leaps of plausibility. If the story starts out unassuming enough for this genre, with the usual details about the crime and the spiked-coffee-swilling detective’s character, the authors suddenly lunge far, far back in time, all the way to Cain and Abel, where we meet the forgotten sister of the first family. (It’s impossible to miss this transition, by the way, because someone in production went all out and fake-aged the pages to resemble biblical parchment.)

Cain and Abel’s sister Asham, we learn, is matchlessly beautiful, and the source of great rivalry between the brothers — it’s the desire to win her, the authors imply, that’s the real motive for the first murder in history. As the cold-hearted but compelling Cain implores his sister shortly before bludgeoning Abel:

“We could build a whole world together,” he says.

“The world already exists.”

“A new one.”

A few pages earlier, she has a comparably heavy conversation with Abel:

“It isn’t greedy to love someone,” Abel says.

“Yes,” she says. “There’s nothing greedier.”

What, you might well, be asking, do Cain and Abel have to do with a contemporary killer prowling the streets of LA? Not a bad question, and the authors spend some 500 pages (yes, this book is a whopper) and many mini-storylines weaving the two strands together. As Asham travels into the wilderness to avenge Abel’s death, back in modern times (signaled by a return to regular white paper) Jacob follows the equally elusive path of the Hollywood Hills murderer. Oh, and he also must contend with a gigantic murderous beetle that begins to haunt his nightmares and, more troubling still, prevents him from having sex.

As Jacob gets deeper into the murder investigation, he stumbles upon connections to a serial killer from several decades earlier. He eventually flies to Prague and then Oxford to investigate a string of unsolved murders — and that’s where things get really freaky. Jacob goes to the synagogue in Prague where, in the 16th century, Rabbi Judah Loew supposedly constructed the Golem of Prague, a mythical monster known for avenging crimes against Jews in particular. But, as Jacob learns about the original Golem and the man who built him, he also makes some startling discoveries about his own family. At this point, the improbabilities pile up and it becomes hard work to stick with this gritty-procedural-cum-paranormal-thriller-cum-religious-myth-retelling, especially when the contemporary crimes take the backburner.

In the end, though, the authors pull it off: They bring all the separate storylines together in a sufficiently convincing manner. And if “The Golem of Hollywood” is as absurd and over-the-top as its title implies, it also makes for an entertaining ride — it’s hard to put down, even during the most out-of-control passages. This reader found it impossible not to admire the ambition of a novel that fuses Genesis with 16th-century Prague with modern-day California. One can almost imagine the father and son brainstorming the all-over-the-place narratives over morning lattes: Hey, in addition to some creepy murders, why don’t we rewrite the Cain and Abel story? Cool — and how about if we throw in some murderous oversize beetles, too? Awesome idea — let’s go for it! If you succeed in reading the “Golem of Hollywood” in that spirit, you can have quite a decent time with it.
‘Golem of Paris’ is far more than a whodunit

Review by  (Washington Jewish Week, 18 November 2015) 

Warning: Reading The Golem of Paris may cause a severe case of literary whiplash.

On one page, we are in Prague, witnessing the frightening workings of a psychiatric hospital used by the communists as a political prison. Then, almost without warning the reader may be yanked into a police archive in Los Angeles where a detective is going over unsolved murder cases, or a home of Holocaust survivors in Brooklyn where the daughter of atheists (“God died in the camps”) is about to be introduced to Orthodox Judaism, or Paris where a policeman is investigating a gruesome murder.

Nor is the reader on terra firma when it comes to time. With no warning save the beginning of a new chapter, he or she is jerked from the 1950s to the ’60s, the ’80s or the new millennium, and then suddenly back again.

Despite the herky-jerky nature of the plot’s flow, in retrospect I view The Golem of Paris as a beautifully woven tapestry, seamlessly tying together the various places and times.

It is a detective story in which police sleuth Jacob Lev displays intelligence, persistence and luck — the three most important elements of success in most endeavors. He tries to bring a serial murderer to justice. In the process, he gains a measure of revenge on the human monster who destroyed his mother’s life.

But The Golem of Paris is much more than just a whodunit. The novel presents the Jerusalem of a bygone era in a flashback to 1969 as the recently reunited city gears up to receive the thousands of Western Orthodox young men and women eager to study in Judaism’s capital and see the sights that only a few years earlier would have been forbidden to them.

Detective Lev’s mother, Bina, was a student at the Sulam women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem. There are seven young women studying at the yeshiva — located in the western Jerusalem neighborhood Bayit Ve’gan and run by Rav Kalman and his wife, Rivka.

The students eat cucumbers and feta cheese and drink tea for breakfast. For lunch, it’s more vegetables and cheese. On their own for dinner, they walk down a dirt path in the neighborhood to a falafel stand where they purchase, for 30 agorot (100 agorot equaled an Israeli lira, the currency that preceded the shekel), “fresh pita stuffed with shatteringly crispy chickpea fritters, stiff hummus and watery tomatoes, washed down with a can of Tempo Cola.”

The house is austere and exists only as an element in the girls’ education:

“Books huddle three deep on cinder-block shelves.

“Books on the tables, on the chairs; books the upholstery of cast-off furniture.

“Books the only adornment, unless you count the small tapestry hanging from a nail in the dun-colored plaster, a verse embroidered in golden thread.

And you shall meditate on it, day and night.

“Books a landscape in flux, like the city of Jerusalem itself.”

And then there is the golem as in The Golem of Paris. The most famous of those mythical creatures was the golem of Prague, created by the Maharal, the 16th-century rabbi of the city, who made the monster out of clay to protect Prague’s Jews and brought it to life with Hebrew incantations.

We encounter our peripatetic golem in Prague and in Paris, and she — her name is Mai — makes a brief appearance in Los Angeles, where she apparently destroyed the car of a pair of criminals who had just robbed a 7-Eleven and were trying to make their getaway.

She inadvertently causes anguish for, and saves the life of, different generations of the Lev family.

What makes this book very intriguing is its status as a shared effort. Collaborations in the arts and sciences, for instance in music, physics and history, are often highly successful.

But jointly writing a novel would seem to be a much more complicated endeavor — even if, as in this case, the writers are father and son.

First there is the matter of process. Do they divide the writing by chapters, sections or subjects? Do sonny and dad edit each other’s prose? Does each accept the other’s changes?

Then, what about the natural evolution of the storyline? From what I have read and from my own experience, plots and characters evolve while authors write. Even if the Kellermans are well organized, it is nonetheless difficult to believe that nothing changed, neither storyline nor characters, during the course of the writing. How can two writers handle those inevitable changes while writing different parts of the book?

Even if the two managed to deal with those problems, how can two individuals produce one integrated product — a hallmark of a good work of fiction?

Imagine for a moment that William Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway had managed to overcome historical time and together had written a novel or a play. Would it not have been jarring to have read a chapter reminiscent of The Old Man and the Sea to be followed by one that brought to mind Hamlet?

Fortunately, I was unable to discern differences in style in the various parts of the novel. As to the other issues, it may be that one of the author’s experience in joint efforts trumped all those problems. When it comes to family collaborations on novels, Jonathan Kellerman must hold some sort of record. Not only is this the second with son Jesse but he also has co-authored two books with his wife, Faye.

I am not a golem aficionado. But The Golem of Paris, despite its title, is a fine detective story, wrapped in a quintessentially 20th-century Jewish tale.

It can be enjoyed without sharing the authors’ apparent passion — they earlier collaborated on The Golem of Hollywood — for this bizarre legendary creature.
Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague