Three novels later, Mishani has certainly done his part to combat Israel’s lack of detective fiction. What began as an attempt to write a PhD dissertation on the genre turned into his first novel, which turned into a series centered around a detective, Avraham Avraham, based in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. Mishani is by no means the first crime writer in Israel, but there is a surprising dearth of such original books (and translations) in a country with a constant backdrop of violence and clashing identity politics. In interviews, he notes that this may be due to the fact that much of Hebrew literature has been used, either implicitly or explicitly, to contribute to the national project of a Jewish state, or because a detective novel thrives in communities where people can move around anonymously, an obstacle in a country not much bigger than New Jersey.
Mishani’s fourth novel, Three (translated by Jessica Cohen), published in English in August 2020, is his first departure from Avraham Avraham and marks a relative genre shift. Split into three parts, Three begins with a recent divorcee, Orna, who meets a man named Gil on an online dating site. Their relationship develops in spurts as we learn that Orna’s husband, Ronen, has recently left her for a German woman and now lives with a new family in Nepal, leaving Orna to raise their son, Eran, alone.
Orna is working with a therapist to help Eran deal with his father’s sudden absence as she gets to know Gil, an immediately untrustworthy immigration attorney. Orna quickly catches Gil in a lie about his marital status and cuts off their relationship, but then allows him back in when Eran’s father visits Israel with his new family. Orna needs Gil’s company to cope with the stress of her ex-husband’s presence, though Gil is clearly shady. For much of the novel, Orna is left trying to figure out if Gil is some kind of sociopath, or just the regular kind of lying man who would leave his wife and child to make a new family thousands of miles away.
The first part of the novel ends with a shock of physical violence, but Mishani scatters the section with other kinds of violence, the wounds that happen internally after heartbreak and betrayal. Here’s Orna’s experience hosting her ex-husband and his new family in her apartment:
[S]ince there were five of them, or six with Ronen, and they whispered to each other in German, their presence in her home was aggressive and violent — more so than she had imagined in her most frightening moments. It filled the place, occupied it, turned the home into theirs and made Orna want to disappear. But she had nowhere to go.
The second part of the book is from the perspective of a Christian immigrant from Latvia named Emilia. The section opens with the death of Nachum, the man that Emilia had cared for since her arrival in Israel two years prior. Emilia struggles to find a consistent job and housing after Nachum’s death until she gets hired as a 24/7 caregiver for a spiteful old woman, Adina, in a nursing home. Emilia sleeps on a foldout bed in the woman’s room and must beg for Sundays off to attend Mass. As Emilia contemplates how much longer she can endure this lifestyle, she is put in touch with one of Nachum’s children, an immigration attorney that may be able to help with her work visa. Emilia soon begins a relationship with Gil.
Here too, before the actual violence is inflicted, Emilia is vulnerable to other modes of pain inevitably endured by an immigrant woman in a foreign country with little money and no family or friends. This is Emilia’s reaction during her first meeting with Gil, when he asks for her last name:
[S]he thought about how she hadn’t said her last name for a long time, as if the only name she had left was Emilia — eh-mili-ya — and that, too, was vanishing, because Adina did not call her by her name, as Nachum and Esther had.
Gil is unable to help Emilia with her work visa, but he then asks her to clean an apartment that he will be moving into in the wake of a separation from his wife. Emilia takes great pleasure in having her own space, and Gil seamlessly leverages Emilia’s employment into a physical and emotional relationship. When Emilia’s employers accuse her of stealing and revoke her passport, she is perfectly helpless for Gil to enact his own brutality. Again, Gil’s villainy is aided by more mundane, but just as horrifying, abuse.
The third section of the novel returns to a form familiar to Mishani, and it is also the weakest of the three parts. In his detective series, Mishani splits the chapters between two perspectives — Avraham Avraham attempting to solve the case, and a person related to the case in ways that are initially unclear to the reader. Mishani similarly divides the third section of the book between an investigator trying to solve the first two cases and a third unsuspecting woman who is developing a relationship with Gil. Just as in his Avraham series, Mishani creates tension at the end of the novel as the chapters switch perspectives with ambiguous timelines so that it is unclear if the detective will catch Gil before he attacks a third woman.
The twist at the end necessitates that we know little about both the detective and the new woman, so neither perspective is as compelling as the first two parts of the book. In the chapters about the new woman, the prose also switches into an awkward and cloying simple future tense and is written as though directed toward the two dead women, as they watch over the third woman hurdling toward Gil’s wrath. Mishani can be forgiven for returning to the style that he knows best, but it is disappointing that a novel with two carefully constructed perspectives pivots to a standard detective thriller in the final act, with less concern for character development.
In the end, we are not given much in the way of an explanation for why Gil does what he does. We don’t know how far back Gil’s violence goes, and it is not clear if Gil planned to kill these women from the outset or if he panics when his lies begin to catch up with him. In the last decade or so, true crime content has surged, with TV shows, podcasts, books, and movies capitalizing on people’s thirst for vicarious real-world horror. So much of this content focuses on the perpetrators. Why do they kill? What are their methods? Whom do they target?
But without a close third-person perspective, we never get these answers in Three. For this, Mishani should be congratulated. He understands that the much more interesting and relatable story is about those who get manipulated and terrorized by sociopaths, and also works to identify the ways that well-meaning people can inflict their own violence on the vulnerable. In Three, it doesn’t take just one sociopath to commit a murder. Blame falls at the feet of anyone who creates an environment where a woman can be victimized.
Though detective fiction often portrays a bleak society where no one can be trusted, Mishani’s novels nonetheless serve to advance Israel’s preferred narrative. There is a passing remark, by Gil of all people, of the way that the “little wars” positively affect his work as an immigration attorney because Israelis look for a “Plan B in case we don’t survive the next war.” This is as close as the novel comes to grappling with a governmental approach that more and more resembles an apartheid. By focusing on a Christian immigrant, Mishani sympathetically portrays an outsider in the Jewish state, without ever mentioning the existence of the large Palestinian population who live as partial citizens in their home.
In a country where the murder rate is exceptionally low (only about 100 homicide victims in 2018), it is convenient to write about a police force doing its job and solving the cases in front of them. As any American can tell you, most cop-related content (of which there is an endless supply) rarely deals with the state-sponsored violence flexed by the country’s bloated police force. Is it Mishani’s job, as a detective-fiction scholar and enthusiast, to explore Israel’s societal ills? Maybe not. Maybe it is enough to simply write mystery novels that entertain, ones that aren’t explicitly political. But Mishani has emphasized in interviews that “a good crime novel is a novel that cares for the fate of all its characters.” Hopefully, in future novels Mishani will expand his roster of characters to include Palestinians and the constant subjugation that they endure in Israel. And, if Mishani does his job right, we will care for their fate as well.
Alex Genty-Waksberg is a teacher and artist living in New York.