Israel’s Agatha Christie
MORSE, WALLANDER, Adam Dalgliesh, Michael Ohayon… Michael who? You may not have heard of Chief Superintendent Ohayon, the introverted, cerebral hero of Israel’s stand-out crime writer, Batya Gur. She wrote just six novels featuring the fictional head of Jerusalem’s murder squad. Each depicts a different microcosm of Israeli society. Each unravels the truth about a killing within a community. Each combines classic elements of the whodunnit with atmospheric insight into Israeli society. Ten years on from Gur’s death at the early age of 57, the time is right for her to gain a British readership. All six books are published by HarperCollins and are currently available through Amazon.
The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Gur was born in Tel Aviv in 1947. She later moved to Jerusalem where she did a master’s in Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University and later became a literary critic for Haaretz. It was not until she was 41 that she wrote the first of her Ohayon mysteries. It was an immediate success, which led to a film adaptation for Israeli television. Though relatively unknown in the UK, she has an international following. In the US, her novels have regularly featured on the New York Times best-seller list. I first became aware of her in an article in a Spanish Basque newspaper, describing her as Israel’s Agatha Christie.
Her first novel, The Saturday Morning Murder, set the tone for the series. Eva Neidorf, a world renowned psychoanalyst, is found murdered on a Shabbat morning shortly before she is due to deliver a controversial lecture. Various suspects emerge as Ohayon peels back the layers of Neidorf’s life: an Arab gardener at the institute; an army officer who was secretly one of her patients; fellow, envious analysts. The denouement is both sudden and unexpected.
There followed Literary Murder, in which two academics at the Hebrew University are the victims; Murder on a Kibbutz; Murder Duet, involving the death of two musicians, one of whom is killed with a string from her own instrument; and Bethlehem Road Murder, which lays bare the hostility between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi residents of one of Jerusalem’s poorest neighbourhoods. Her final novel, Murder in Jerusalem, set in the studios of Israel’s state television service and published posthumously, is deeper and more disturbing, perhaps reflecting her own state of mind as she battled with illness.
The Ohayon novels are not perfect, and have their distracting idiosyncrasies. But, as a good read and a fascinating insight into Israeli society, they are hard to beat.