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It’s not easy being a crime novelist in Israel

Liad Shoham
Liad Shoham

TEL AVIV (JTA) – “You and I, we need to have a little talk about sex,” my editor said in a deep voice.

I was in the midst of writing my first thriller about a geeky lawyer suspected of murder, and I was waiting for my editor’s verdict about what I had put to paper up to that point. As a full-time commercial lawyer, the idea that one day I would become an author of thrillers seemed far-fetched to me.

Amnon, my editor, looks the way a thriller writer should: tall, muscular, thick voice and a secret past in the Mossad. Basically he’s everything I’m not. I’m a bespectacled, bookish nerd not heavy on the muscles.

“The key for creating good sex scenes,” he said, looking straight at me, “is while you’re writing them, get your mother out of your head.”

“My mother?” I didn’t understand.

“Don’t think about her,” he said and raised a finger in warning. “Don’t imagine what she’ll think when she reads it.”

Writing a love scene is embarrassing enough –surely people think it’s about my own intimate experiences — but it’s even worse when one is an Israeli writer who has to deal with the implications: Is this going to embarrass my mom when she’s at the grocery store? What will Aunt Leah say at the Passover seder?

And that’s the least of it. The truth is, it’s not easy to write suspense novels in Israel.

Let’s start with the fact that Israel is a very small place. An American writer can take his hero from New York and lead him all the way to California, where he can create a new identity for himself. Where can I take mine? To Afula? That’s less than 30 miles from Tel Aviv. And let’s say I take him to Eilat, the furthest place in Israel, so what? He’d still be discovered.

That’s because Israelis love to play a game where they ask one another “Where are you from?” and then start with the “do you know so and so?” My poor protagonist, who thought he would be incognito, would be exposed in five minutes — not by sophisticated and seasoned police detectives but by the third-floor neighbors.

Speaking of police, they’re nothing to write home about. There is no “CSI Israel” because people would die laughing. They read the newspapers about the police force’s success, or rather their lack thereof, and know exactly how the police force works. One of the most famous jokes in Israel is, “Why are policemen always in pairs? There needs to be one who can read and another that can write.” Just try selling them glorious police detectives.

And what about serial killers? Impossible!

During the 65 years of Israel’s existence, we have yet to be “graced” with the presence of one. Even more important, the Israeli public would never believe that a serial killer could emerge from within. “Moishele? Shoshana’s son? A serial killer? Oh, come on. His father served with my cousin in the army. What a bunch of nonsense!”

I am filled with envy every time I read books in which the author did not dedicate whole chapters to what the main characters’ families think. In Israel, the family has such an important role that it is difficult to see how credible characters can be created without getting into the details and about all their relatives.

Recently I saw an Israeli film in which one of the main characters tortured a guy. In the midst of it all, the mother of the torturer called — so he stopped beating up the guy. She started badgering him about why he wasn’t married and how it could be that he didn’t have children yet? The aggressor apologized to his mother and explained that he “still hadn’t found the right one” before resuming his nefarious activities.  I looked at the other viewers: This wasn’t an unreasonable scene to them.

Construction is also a problem — not of novels, but apartment buildings and city planning. In Israel, there are no basements or attics. And even if there were, I doubt a body could be placed there. Ten minutes later, the building committee would arrive complaining about the misappropriate use of common property.

And what if I want to write about the mafia (yes, we do have organized crime in Israel)? We Israeli writers have an advantage because no one really knows a lot about the criminal organizations. But honestly, in a country where so many things are a chaotic “balagan” and so many things are done on the fly, what are the chances that a criminal organization would be run in an orderly fashion?

I will say this: Despite everything, and maybe as a result of everything (as always seems to be the case with the Jewish people), crime literature in Israel has been blooming in recent years. I think it provides escapism for living in the region and an outlet for a tense people.

Besides, if you write about what you know and understand, the more believable, accurate and interesting it becomes. That’s why I set my work locally and write about current topics rather than mimic the conventions of the American genre.

For example, my book “Lineup” (just published in English in the United States) is torn from the real-life headlines of a Tel Aviv rape that went unsolved. I also investigate different subcultures of Israel, from African asylum-seekers to corruption in the local authorities as well as the inner politics on a moshav.

And sometimes I still have to write sex scenes.

After writing my third book, I asked my mother how she was dealing with the licentiousness.

“I don’t read it and just skip forward,” she said.

“How do you know how much to skip?” I pressed on.

She replied, “What do think your father is for?”

(Liad Shoham’s six legal thrillers are best-sellers. The English translation of his latest book, “Asylum City,” will be published in August. He lives in Tel Aviv.)