"Bethlehem Road Murder"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 19, 2007)
"There's everything here…All kinds. There are Moroccans from the 1950s, who were evacuated from the transit camp in Talpiot…and there are even some Arabs who stayed after 1948, and there are a few Greeks who have kept their houses since then. And there are rich American and French Jews who have been coming here since 1967. There are shopkeepers from the Mahaneh Yehuda market and there are yuppies…Romanians, German Jews, Peace Now, ultra-Orthodox from Shas and also from America. Even Bulgarians."
Setting her novel in an ethnically mixed neighborhood of Jerusalem, Israeli novelist Batya Gur continues the career of Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon, formerly a historian, now a police investigator. In this fifth book in the series, Michael Ohayon is called to the scene of a particularly gory murder. An apparently beautiful young woman has been murdered in the attic of a house undergoing renovations, her face beaten to a pulp. No one knows how she might have been lured to such a place or why she might have been murdered.
The search for the murderer of Zahara Bashari introduces elements unique to the Israeli setting. Zahara has been working on developing a small museum "for the splendor of Yemenite culture" in the basement of a local synagogue. Complex political issues exist between the Yemenites, known as the Mizrahis, and the Ashkenazis (Russian Jews), and Zahara believes that the Ashkenazim want to wipe out everything that distinguishes the Yemenite Jews. Further complexities evolve from the fact that in the 1950s, Yemenite babies were kidnapped from their parents and given to others to raise, and Zahara wants to find out more about this stain on the past and what might have happened to one of her own kin.
The investigation is centered on the neighborhood, with all its tensions and rivalries. Zahara's parents and their next door neighbors, the Beinisches, do not speak and have not done so for years, each cultivating resentments against the other. Nessia, a lonely, young neighborhood girl with no friends, idolizes Zahara and follows her movements in the neighborhood, jotting down who she sees, collecting "souvenirs" of Zahara's life, and looking for some sort of recognition from Zahara—until she, too, disappears. Zahara's personal life proves to be more complex than even her family suspected, and her previously unknown ownership of an apartment and substantial savings account prove particularly worrisome.
As the relationships within the neighborhood evolve, the rivalries and tensions within the police department also evolve, and they, like the residents, reflect all aspects of society and all political and social movements. This is particularly noticeable in attitudes towards Arabs. Though Ohayon is a moderate in his views, Danny Balilty, deputy commander of the intelligence division, who is also on the case, is a hard-liner. The author, however, tries to keep the Arab-Israeli points of view in balance here, however, and she criticizes the Israeli attacks on Palestinians as much as she does the Palestinian violence. Within the neighborhood, residents are more flexible than are some of the governmental officials. Some residents work with and hire Arab contractors, some have friends who are Arabs, and some express annoyance at the strict measures imposed by their government to prohibit the work of Arabs except under certain circumstances.
A special feature of the personal relationships which unfold in this mystery is Ohayon's rediscovery of an old love, which, when it rekindles, warms the heart of this long-time divorced man. Other love stories involving the large number of other characters keep personal relationships very much at the forefront, even as the investigation of Zahara's murder and Nessia's disappearance unfolds.
Filled information about a unique way of life, the mystery offers an opportunity for the reader to learn a bit about life in Jerusalem within the context of an exciting mystery. The novel is not always easy to follow, however. I found myself having to stop several times at important points because the persons referred to as "he," "she," and "they" were not always clear, and I had to backtrack to find out exactly who was the referrent. Some awkwardnesses in translation also occur, and there are digressions. During Ohayon's courtship, for example, he and his lady-love have long dissertations on the nature of love. These, though interesting, wander on too long, lessen the tension, and slow down the conclusion. Still, author Batya Gur has some good psychological insights into character, especially of the fat, young girl Nessia, and Gur's ability to juggle innumerable characters and plot ideas is admirable.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Saturday Morning Murder: Psychoanalytic Case (1992)
- Murder on a Kibbutz (1994)
- Literary Murder (1993)
- Murder Duet: A Musical Case (1999)
- Bethlehem Road Murder (2005)
- Murder in Jerusalem (August 2006)
- Next to the Hunger Road (1990)
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- Wikipedia page on Batya Gur
- The New York Times collection of reviews for Batya Gur
- Who Dunnit review of Murder Duet
- Reading Guide for Bethlehem Road Murder
- BookLoons review of Bethlehem Road Murder
- Reading Guide for Murder in Jerusalem
- The New York Times obituary for Batya Gur
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About the Author:
Batya Gur, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was born in 1947 in Tel Aviv. She received a master's degree in comparative literature from the Hebrew University. She taught literature in high schools and spent a number of years in the U.S.
In 1988, she began writing a series starring the character of police detective Michael Ohayon: an educated, pensive, and intellectual detective who captivated the Hebrew reader. Five sequels ensued. The first book was adapted as a film for Israeli television. In every book in the series Michael Ohayon enters a closed world, an isolated society, with rules of its own.
She was also literary critic for Ha`aretz newspaper.S he spent her final years living in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood. In addition to her books, Gur was an outspoken political and social activist.
Gur died May 19, 2005 following a long illness from cancer. She was 57. She is survived by her husband Ariel Hirschfeld, a scholar and critic and three children from a previous marriage.