Jewish-themed mystery novels give you cases to crack this summer


BY HOWARD FREEDMAN, Special For The Jewish Light

For many of us, summer reading involves books that engage us but don’t feel like work to get through. One genre that frequently fits the bill is mystery. Cases in point: two new Jewish-flavored mystery novels.

Matt Goldman is known for his books featuring Minneapolis detective Nils Shapiro. Goldman takes a break from the series with his most recent novel, the atmospheric “Carolina Moonset,” which captures the impact of the past on a family as well as a town in South Carolina.

the cover of "Carolina Moonset" by Matt Goldman is a moody image of a house on a bayou as cranes fly by, with the title superimposed in yellow typeProtagonist Marshall Green grew up in one of the few Jewish families in historic, picturesque Beaufort, South Carolina, prior to attending medical school in Chicago and practicing medicine there. Following retirement, Marshall has returned to live in the Beaufort family home with his wife, Carol. Sadly, Marshall now suffers from Lewy body dementia, an eventually fatal condition that has rendered him unable to form new memories.

The story is narrated by son Joey, who’s visiting Beaufort from Chicago to help care for Marshall and allow Carol to take a short trip to Florida for a pickleball tournament and a much-needed break from caretaking.

In the course of spending time with his father, Joey is startled by how, even as Marshall cannot recall events that occurred five minutes ago, his memories from prior decades have become much more vivid and appear to have a hold on him. In occasional hallucinatory moments, Marshall speaks with urgency to mysterious friends from long ago. Joey’s curiosity about the world concealed in his father’s memories, which his father has no interest in sharing, leads him to ask other townspeople to help fill in the missing parts of the puzzle.

Then, one of the town’s most prominent citizens — the scion of a family who owns much of the town’s land — is found shot to death. As circumstances make Marshall a suspect in the killing (I’m loath to reveal details), Joey is further drawn into uncovering events from both the present and the distant past in order to keep his father out of a criminal investigation — even as he’s not entirely certain of Marshall’s innocence. His discoveries underscore the complicated ways race, class and power have long intersected in Beaufort.

Aiding him in this endeavor is Leela, the daughter of his parents’ friends, with whom he has been set up. A psychologist, she is, like Joey, divorced with kids and in town visiting aging parents. In the course of their rapidly deepening relationship, which operates under an interesting set of rules set by Leela, Joey grows a good deal.

Perhaps because I have an aunt with a similar condition, I found the portrayal of Marshall’s challenges particularly affecting. Interestingly, a number of Jewish novels in recent years — such as Joshua Henkin’s “Morningside Heights” and A.B. Yehoshua’s “The Tunnel” — have portrayed the experience of dementia. Part of this reflects medical reality, but I also wonder about it as a particularly Jewish concern. One of our formative mitzvot is zakhor, to remember. The question of who we are when our minds and memories alter is a profound one.

Dementia also shadows the lives of characters in “The Kindness of Strangers,” the third installment in Andy Weinberger’s series of mystery novels focused on retired Los Angeles detective Amos Parisman. Amos is taking a stroll in his Fairfax District neighborhood when he comes across a crime scene being overseen by a friend on the police force, Lieutenant Malloy. An unidentified woman has been bludgeoned to death, her body tossed into a dumpster. Amos recognizes her as a homeless woman he has passed by frequently on his neighborhood walks. He eagerly accepts Malloy’s invitation to get involved avocationally in the case. After all, as he notes, “This retirement thing? Between you and me, I’d rather be dead.”

The cover of "The Kindness of Strangers" by Andy Weinberger has an illustration of a tall hotel at dusk flanked by palm trees, with a dumpster in front
The cover of “The Kindness of Strangers” by Andy Weinberger has an illustration of a tall hotel at dusk flanked by palm trees, with a dumpster in front

The stakes increase when another homeless person is killed in a similar manner. As he explores the crimes and interviews people from all walks of life, Amos suspects that the murders may be connected to a church that caters to the down and out.

What I found most compelling in the novel was not the intrigues of the case, but Amos himself. A secular Jew with a strong ethical code, he is motivated not by the desire to solve riddles, but by his humanity. He seems particularly invested in this particular case because of who the victims are. Homeless people are at the bottom of society’s pecking order, and, as he learns, there are people who are not bothered to see them disappear.

Amos’s personal life entails its share of challenges. His wife, Loretta, is deep into dementia and consigned to a nursing home, leaving Amos miserably alone in the quiet of an apartment. He has recently taken up with Mara, a woman whose husband is in the same care facility as Loretta. But Amos cannot wholeheartedly participate in a romantic relationship, as he retains a sense of loyalty to his marriage. Such a poignant circumstance likely befalls thousands though is rarely spoken of.

Weinberger has operated Readers’ Books in Sonoma since 1991, and writing fiction has been a late development in his career. Unexpectedly for an author anchored for so many years in Sonoma County, the novel evokes Los Angeles as few do. Crisscrossing from Boyle Heights to Brentwood, and featuring meals at the Farmers Market and Canter’s Deli, it is as specific to Los Angeles as “Carolina Moonset” is to Beaufort. Angelenos will find themselves at home in the novel’s physical and culinary landscape.

“Carolina Moonset” by Matt Goldman (Forge Books, 272 pages)

“The Kindness of Strangers: An Amos Parisman Mystery” by Andy Weinberger (Prospect Park Books, 280 pages)