Cops are one thing. PIs or “dicks” are another. I’ve rarely met a cop I really liked, but I know a bunch of PIs or private investigators I admire. We’re in the same line of work: investigating. A few years ago, at a party in Hollywood I attended when I was working for Warner Brothers, Jane Fonda walked up to my friend, Stew Albert, and told him, “So, you’re now a dick.” Stew took the comment as a compliment. After all, he was a dick and dicks are cool in movie land. Fonda plays Brie, a movie call girl investigated by a detective named John Klute in a role made memorable by Donald Sutherland. As in many detective films, Out of the Past and The Maltese Falcon, Klute becomes romantically involved with the woman he’s shadowing. Those kinds of entanglements rarely happen in real life, though Fonda and Sutherland became lovers.
Until the early 1960s, Stewart Albert was a Brooklyn-born Jewish, Trotskyite and a bodybuilder. After he moved to California, he became a hippie and later a Yippie, and after Watergate, he reinvented himself as a private investigator in San Francisco, a city famous for PIs, a profession that often seems to be the last refuge of both angels and scoundrels. Sam Spade is a “blond Satan.” Philip Marlowe starts off as a knight in shining armor and ends up as part of the nastiness he abhors. In San Francisco, a lot of ex-cops become dicks.
As a PI, Stew Albert obtained FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which Congress passed in 1967 and that enabled private citizens to read the reports, usually redacted, that G-Men wrote about them. FOIA didn’t exist during the time of Dashiell Hammett, the father of modern detective fiction and a Communist Party member who went to jail rather than name names. He was romantically involved with Lillian Hellman, the New Orleans-born Jewish anti-fascist playwright (Watch on the Rhine) who is portrayed by Jane Fonda in the feature film Julia. Hammett is played by Jason Robards.
Before Hellman met “Dash,” he snooped and spied for the anti-union Pinkerton National Detective Agency and later poured his gumshoe days and nights into noir novels such The Maltese Falcon. “Most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken,” Spade says.
No one knows that better than my brother, Adam, a San Francisco PI, licensed by the State of California, with an M.A. in sociology, and a long record of working for criminal defense lawyers like Tony Serra. My brother insists that he has learned more about criminality and its detection from reading Hammett and Raymond Chandler than from anyone else.
I’ve been reading and rereading those two authors for most of my adult life. For years, I also taught a college course titled “The Mysteries of College Composition.” Students were required to create a fictional detective. They also watched movies like The Big Fix, the detective flic based on Roger Simon’s novel of the same name with a Jewish detective named Moses Wine.
There’s no movie version of The Jew Detective (1891), a dime novel in which Alvan Judah appears as the first Jewish PI in fiction.
Hey, Jews wanted to read about detectives who belonged to their own tribe. After all these years, there’s no really famous fictional Jewish PI, and no really great Jewish murder mystery either. Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow didn’t write detective stories because they belong to genre fiction and they aimed to write Great American Novels.
In the crowded field of contemporary Jewish-American fiction, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen's Union stands out because it’s comic and set in a futuristic version of Alaska, with a Jewish homicide detective named Meyer Landmans, a name that sounds like Meyer Lansky, the arch criminal and Jew who worked with the U.S. government and with Lucky Luciano to defeat fascism in World War II. He was also a racketeer. Chabon pays homage to his literary ancestors, but his novel often feels like a parody. His Israeli-born wife Ayelet Waldman carved out her own unique territory in the Mommy-Track Mysteries, which appeals to mothers. Waldman’s own girlhood, which she describes as “a very specific kind of Labor-Zionist Judaism,” suggests the complexities of contemporary Jewish experience that refuse to be typecast, though that hasn’t discouraged Jewish writers.
In an essay titled “Is This Any Job for a Nice Jewish Boy?“ James Yaffe, himself a writer of detective fiction, argues that God was the first detective and Adam the first criminal. That sounds right. God entraps Adam with the apple and the snake and Eve plays the part of the femme fatale. As in almost all crime stories, the perpetrators or “perps,” as dicks call them, are punished severely, but we’re supposed to believe the punishment is for their own good.
Yaffe believes that Judaism provides the kind of fundamental understanding of justice, truth and critical inquiry that’s necessary for murder mystery. But the same could be said for Christianity and Buddhism. All religions provide a moral basis for understanding crime detection and punishment.
My brother Adam is a kind of non-Jewish, Jewish detective. He’s not religious but he’s infused with Jewish culture and he’s also not a nice Jewish boy. Dicks aren’t nice guys, or if they are they’re not nice guys all the time. They can’t be nice when they visit men condemned to serve life sentences. Go into San Quentin and Folsom, as my brother does, and you have to have a thick skin, though you might also feel compassion for the condemned. That’s my brother’s weakness, though it’s also his strength. He empathizes with men behind bars, though not all of them. Child molesters rarely if ever elicit his sympathy, but he believes everyone has the right to a fair trial.
Ever since 1980, I’ve followed Adam’s adventures as he has unraveled crimes and solved mysteries, not with ballistics, forensics, or “ratiocination” — the method Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin uses in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” — but rather by accumulating mounds of information and sorting through it. “Not everyone is guilty of the crime that they’re accused of committing, but everyone is guilty of a crime,” my brother tells me. About cop testimony, he has a healthy dose of skepticism. In the trade it’s called “testalying.”
While Adam can be decidedly Jewish in his gestures and expressions, and though he’s a detective by trade, it’s not fair to call him a “Jewish detective.” I could just as well call him an Islamic detective or a Zen PI. He can pass for an Israeli and spout Hebrew, impersonate a Brazilian and speak Portuguese, or hang with newly arrived Russian Jewish immigrants in San Francisco, trying to scam their countrymen. Adam’s job suits his personality. A few years ago he studied Yiddish with a Berkeley professor. Now, he converses with old Jews and keeps the language alive.
I once hired him to obtain San Francisco police department files on Natalie Jackson, a woman who was Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend in 1955 and who died in a fall from the third floor of a building in San Francisco. When I expressed surprise when my brother handed over the files, he said, “You can get any information you want if you’re willing to pay for it.” And if you’re persistent.
Professor Laurence Roth, the author of the scholarly study, Inspecting Jews: American Jewish Detective Stories, doesn’t feature any real Jewish detectives in his book, but rather Jewish writers such as Stuart Kaminsky, Faye Kellerman and Harry Kemelman.
“Most of the books I wrote about in Inspecting Jews are concerned with the Holocaust, Jewish pasts, and what it means for Jews to have power.” Like every other ethnic group Jews abuse power once they have. While Professor Roth doesn’t think that there’s a great Jewish detective novel, he likes the work of Jonathan Dunsky, an Israeli author who created the Adam Lapid series of mystery novels in the hard-boiled vein.
Roth also admires the work of Rochelle Krich, who was born in Germany in 1947, the child of Holocaust survivors, reared in the U.S. and a teacher at Yeshiva University, a private high school in L.A. Readers of Krich’s fiction don't learn that her LAPD detective, Jessica Drake, is Jewish until Angel of Death (1994), the second book in the series. “Krich’s books are classics,” Roth says. “They will last.”
Perhaps they will. But I don’t like the real LAPD or fictional detectives who work for the department. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are private eyes, unaffiliated with any government agency or institution. Detectives at police departments usually protect the established order and seek convictions, often at any price, as shown in the book and movie, L.A. Confidential, which features corrupt cops as violent as any criminals. One of the characters is based on the real Mickey Cohen who was born good but became a gangster and died in his sleep in 1976.
Crime fiction tells truths that don’t make the mass media, which rarely explains why crimes are committed, though the who, what, where, when and how can be found in the lead. Journalists abhor mysteries. Detective story writers love them. And don’t forget that at the start of The Godfather, Mario Puzo quotes Balzac who said, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”