Mysteries can take place anywhere. On a boat on the Nile. On a luxurious train slicing through the snowy landscape of Europe. On the streets of New York, or New Delhi, or Tel Aviv.
They can take place in cities or in small towns. In modern Tokyo or in ancient Rome. Wherever they take place, the setting often dictates the tone of the story, and of the characters.
I learned this lesson while writing my Adam Lapid series. These are historical mysteries set primarily in Israel in the 1940s and ‘50s. And in these books the setting influences everything, including the detective work itself.
Since there were hardly any private cars in Israel at the time, my private eye, Adam Lapid, has to take the bus, or walk, or occasionally splurge on a taxi. Since there were barely any telephones, he can’t call people at their home. And since forensic science was in its infancy, he has to rely on his raw detecting skills to solve the case.
Above all, the specter of the Holocaust looms. People without families roam the streets and scream in their sleep as nightmares assail them. Many of the children do not have grandparents or aunts or cousins. Adam Lapid is himself a survivor of Auschwitz, and he is forever changed by his time there.
Adam is a loner, reluctant to make new connections, and is weighed down by survivor’s guilt. He doesn’t trust state authority, in spite of being an ardent Zionist, and is willing to tread beyond the limits of the law to bring about justice.
One thing many readers tell me is how fascinating the setting is. They feel as though they’re walking the scorching streets of Tel Aviv or the murky alleyways of West Jerusalem. The setting of Israel in its infancy becomes a character in its own right. It breathes and moves; it’s alive in a palpable way. It shapes the characters and the narrative of each book.
One of the greatest pleasures of writing the Adam Lapid books is getting emails from people who grew up on the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem when the books take place, or when someone writes that he took one of my books with him on a trip to Israel and walked the same streets Adam Lapid does in the novels. It makes the books more real somehow, as if they bridged the unfathomable gap between fiction and reality. It injects them with added meaning and importance.
An unexpected benefit of writing the Adam Lapid series is learning more about my parents’ childhoods. Both grew up in Tel Aviv in the 1940s and ‘50s, and I often turn to them with questions about the way things looked and the atmosphere on the streets. “Here there was an orange grove,” my father would say, pointing at a street on the map in which there are only buildings today. “Here the road wasn’t even paved, and children would play sports in the street,” my mother would tell me. Today, with traffic being what it is, playing in the street would be too dangerous.
They tell me about the abundance of butterflies and wildflowers, of food rationing and children wearing darned hand-me-downs. They regale me with tales of Dzigan and Schumacher, titans of Yiddish standup comedy. They talk about the lack of cars and telephones, about the black market, about children teaching their parents Hebrew instead of the other way around.
If I weren’t writing these books, I wouldn’t be asking so many questions and learning so much about my parents.
One of my main sources of historical information are newspapers of the time. In them I read what people bought and sold, what movies showed in which theater, what news had hold of the public’s attention.
In those newspapers I read about fledgling Israel’s precarious diplomatic situation, about the difficulties the young state had in absorbing hundreds of thousands of impoverished Jewish immigrants that flocked to it from all corners of the world. I read about political parties that have since evaporated, the animosity between David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, about flourishing kibbutzim and miserable Ma’abarot, the haphazard camps where many immigrants lived due to lack of housing.
Above all, writing the Adam Lapid novels has taught me about the miracle of Israel. Its unlikely beginning, its hard struggle for security and diplomatic acceptance. It’s a story that fills me with awe and pride.
As I continue writing the Adam Lapid novels, so Israel’s early history changes and develops. I keep learning new things about the country where I live. I encounter both bright and dark moments, things that make me smile and others that give me a twinge. But I’m grateful for the gift that writing the Adam Lapid books has given me. I’m learning more about my country’s past and I’m better able to understand its present as a result. When I wrote the first words of the first Adam Lapid novel, I never expected to be so handsomely rewarded. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving with each new book.