|Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker
(creator: Faye Kellerman)
|Rina Lazarus is a totally committed Orthodox Jew who, when we first meet her, is allowed to live in an isolated Orthodox Jewish religious college for men, a yeshiva, buried in the hill country behind Los Angeles. Her husband had died from a brain tumour, aged 28, leaving her with two young sons to look after. In the first book Sammy (Shmuel) is 8, and Jacob (Yaakov) is 7. To her admirer, Detective Peter Decker, "There was something classic about her face - the oval shape, creamy skin, fall, soft mouth, startling blue eyes." She "was goddam beautiful .... Even the long-sleeved shirt and dowdy skirt couldn't hide a curvaceous body that brushed against the material as she walked. But it was her face - the combination of innocence and sensuality - that got to him."
Although she enjoys living in the Los Angeles yeshiva and is grateful for the home it provides for her and her sons, she certainly had not enjoyed the three years that she and her husband had once spent in an Israeli settlement in Hebron: "I don't think I was ever more miserable. I was stuck behind barbed wire fencing with two small infants of my own, and in charge of the group's nursery which.... had 44 kids. All the men carried guns with them. It was open warfare out there." It was only her idealism that had kept them there. "I was the one who insisted we stay - always the martyr .... I thought we should be religious chalutzniks - pioneers. Finally, he (her husband) put his foot down. He said he couldn't live in that kind of atmosphere."
Peter Decker is a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department, and the main character. Aged 38 when we first meet him, he is 6ft 4in tall, red-headed, and "a good cop, smart and dedicated". But, as he explains, "I used to do ranching when I was a kid in Florida. I did construction work in high school. I was a lawyer for a while, and I don't see myself as being a cop for ever." He is "a big man .... with strong features and, despite the fair skinned and ginger hair, dark penetrating eyes". And he has a mustache, the ends of which he chews.
He had enlisted to serve in Vietnam and can never quite forget his terrible experiences there. He is divorced with a teenaged daughter (his Jewish wife had left him years before). He had originally been adopted and brought up by a Baptist couple, but he had later discovered that his original parents had both been Jewish. When he meets Rina Lazarus, he has to decide whether or not to take up her strictly Orthodox Judaism.
He is still a Detective at the end of the first book but has suddenly become a Detective Sergeant by the beginning of the second one.
Faye Kellerman (1952 - ) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up in Sherman Oaks, California. She earned a BA in mathematics and a doctorate in dentistry at UCLA, and conducted research in oral biology, but she never practiced as a dentist. Her first novel (that she herself describes as "groundbreaking" was published in 1986 (see review below). It was followed by many more Decker/Lazarus and other novels.There are now more than twenty million copies of her novels in print internationally.
She explains, "My life is centered around family, children and Judaism. I enjoy reading about other cultures, so I thought that there were people out there who might enjoy reading about my culture. Hence Rina was born. Peter came later." She is married to the novelist/psychologist Jonathan Kellerman and they have four children, two of whom have also published novels. She and her husband now write some books together. They are both practicing Orthodox Jews, and it is this that gives the books their particular flavor.
The Ritual Bath (1986)
It is Rina who tries to explain to Decker the religious practices to which she is so committed, and it is she with whom he finds himself falling in love. But, as she tells him, "I think it's wrong to have sex if you're not married. I don't think fire and brimstone will come pouring down if you do, but I think it is wrong. Why? Not on moral grounds - though a case could be made for that, too - but because it's immodest. Tsnios - bodily modesty is important to us. That's why we dress the way we do, that's why married women cover their hair. Not to look unattractive - we like dressing up as much as the next person - but because we believe that the body is private and not some cheesy piece of artwork that is put on public display." So there is no way in which she would want to form any sort of relationship with someone she supposes to be a goy, and, as he is not a practicing Jew, he decides not to tell about his own Jewish background. This strains the credibility, but it keeps the plot going.
Despite all the difficulties, Decker's and Rina's relationship continues to develop, and he soon makes friends with her sons, although the first time she comes to meet him, he can't help thinking, "Shit! She'd brought her kids". It is their partnership which leads to the eventual capture of the rapist (who gets knocked out when he is hit hard over the head "with an oversized volume of the Talmud"!), but not before Decker's and Rina's lives have both been endangered.
It makes an interesting and easy-to-read story, and the author writes with complete conviction, whether she is explaining the intricacies of Orthodox belief or is handling the nitty-gritty of violent crime, as when Rina is taunted and assaulted by anti-semite punk youths in a supermarket car park. There are explicit details of sex and violence, as when Rina persuades the rape victim to talk to her and she later tells Decker: "He attempted to .... tried to do it to her from behind. First the regular way, then sodomy, but he wasn't aroused."
In view of the convincing (if at times unintentionally off-putting) portrayal of the intricacies of life at the yeshiva, and the assured storytelling, this book gets the series off to a good start and is to be recommended.
Sacred and Profane (1987)
A forensic dentist (here the author makes good use of her dental training), determines that the victims were teenage girls and Decker, himself a father of a 16-year-old daughter by his divorced wife, is suddenly embroiled in a highly disturbing case that takes him from one end of Los Angeles society to the other, and, as he shuttles between the middle-class respectability of the suburbs and the terrifying crack dens of Hollywood Boulevard, he is constantly brought back to the fact that the only unifying thread in a network of violence and particularly perverse pornography (including snuff movies) seems to be the deaths of two apparently very different young girls, who may have had some connection with a sinister group of old men who call themselves "The Loving Grandpas".
Determined to know more about Rina's Jewish faith, Decker has been having weekly sessions with Rabbi Shulman. "So far, he had no trouble grasping the intellectual and legal aspects of Judaism. But Hebrew remained a roadblock." Of course, he knew that he "could reveal to Rina that he was adopted and that his biological parents were Jewish, so there was no legal reason to convert. But he didn't consider that a viable option. Too dishonest. He was a product of his real parents - the man and woman who had nurtured him. And they had raised him a Baptist. Besides, Rina deserved a genuinely committed Jew for a husband, not a Jew by accident of birth. Anything less would make her miserable. He knew he'd have to come to Orthodoxy on his own."
Meanwhile "He and Rena were in love but not yet lovers" - not at the start of the book anyway. It is still not an entirely convincing situation. but it is helped along by flashes of humor as when Decker, in the midst of trying to teach himself Hebrew from a children's Hebrew primer, decides that "he could show a little (sexual) restraint. Give it a year, he said to himself. Priests do it for much longer. He translated the Hebrew in his mind, proud that he could understand it. Who is coming? Father is coming. Who is coming? Mother is coming. Well, he thought, at least someone is coming."
Decker and Rina both come alive as interesting individuals, although Decker's doubts are easier to accept than Rina's dogmatic certainties. When his police colleagues start jokingly addressing him as Rabbi, "No doubt they attributed his metamorphosis to Rina; he loved her and was changing to please her. But Decker knew it was deeper than that. Religion had given him a spark of renewed faith, and though it hadn't blossomed into fire - maybe he was too cynical for it to ever get that bright - it was better than complete darkness."
But the author allows him to complain to Rina: "One of my informants, a sixteen-year-old girl who looks like my daughter, is in the hospital, beaten to a bloody pulp. Indirectly it was my fault. She was feeding me information, and when the case began to get complicated, I told her to back off. She didn't listen, and I think someone got to her. Now she's hanging on by a thread and I'm pissed off."
As for Decker's possible conversion, he tells his colleague Marge, "It seemed like a good idea at the time. I wasn't aware of how involved it got. Now I am. Judaism is a hands-on religion. It takes over your life. There are dietary restrictions, sexual restrictions, drinking restrictions, clothing restrictions .... You know you're not even allowed to wear a garment made of wool and linen."
Then they discover four dead bodies. three "of them covered with a sticky coat of blood and honey, a nappy blanket of bees and flies, and rice-size maggots". And, in a sub-plot, Decker's old Vietnam pal, Abel, gets accused of rape and murder. At one point he seems about to rape Rina too, and neither this nor a fight that Dekker has with him, seem really convincing. Nor is the way that Dekker and Abel then burst into laughter, after which Rina thinks of them as "like little naughty boys, like her sons after they'd played a trick on her.... She knew from her own kids, it would spoil their little game if she laughed with them. She maintained her stern expression. 'You two should be ashamed of yourselves,' she said as seriously as she could."
Rina Lazarus had been living in New York for the last year so as to give Dekker time alone in order to decide how committed he was to his new Orthodox Jewish faith. While she was away, he had become a proper frummie - a religious Jew, and been given a Jewish name, Akiva. He told her that "he'd be observant most of the time, but would bend the letter of the law when it seemed right to do so." In practice, apart from taking care not to work on Shabbos, he seems to behave much as before. Unfortunately, although she returns to him, she only plays a comparatively small part in the story, as does the Orthodox background which gave the earlier books so much of their appeal. Following her experiences in New York , "She'd become temporarily disillusioned with religion or at least with religious people", and is eager to sleep with him, even though he knew that "she'd never let go completely until after they were married".
Unfortunately, the book is over-long and the main plot gets distinctly tedious. The honey farm characters, with whom Rina is not involved, seem neither very realistic nor interesting, and many of the incidents are described at greater length than seems necessary. There are many lengthy conversations with a great deal of conjecture about what may have happened in the past, and not all that much exciting action in the present. The most vivid part is an account of the horrors of an incident in Vietnam when the young Decker had saved Abel's life but had had to shoot Abel's sixteen-year-old Cong girl friend: "Her brain spluttering my clothes, her blood spraying in my eyes".
The one place where there is some serious religious discussion cames right towards the end when Dekker tells Rabbi Shulman that he wants to be a good husband to Rina but "Sometimes it's as if I'm possessed. Something that just takes control of me."
Day of Atonement (1991)
While there, there is a distinctly novelettish moment in which he suddenly comes across his own birth mother, Frieda Levine. He also gets to know his five half-siblings, one of whom, Jonathan, is "believe it or not, a Conservative rabbi" who has ostracised himself from his ultra Orthodox family. As he tells Decker, "According to the Orthodox, I really don't believe in the same God as they do because I think oral law is not as holy as the written law." The ultra-Orthodox, it is explained, deliberately try to shut out the modern world altogether: "Almost none of the ultra-Orthodox families owned TVs .... movies were out, as was popular fiction." Decker thought, "It was good that he'd met Rina. His secular ways kept her from going over the edge."
But then Noam, Frieda's young teenage grandson, "a loner with creepy eyes", goes missing on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and there are only ten days before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Decker feels that he must track him down, even though he is meant to be on his honeymoon, is way out of his own police district, and has no official status. Noam appears to have taken off with a shadowy and sinister individual, a real weirdo who has a penchant for knives - and for dominating adolescent boys - all blamed, it seems, on his unhappy childhood. Up to now he has channelled his anger into his favourite hobby, gutting fish - preferably while they are still alive. It is not long before he moves on to eviscerating people, and it becomes obvious that Noam is in very real danger.
The book marks a welcome return to the strict Orthodox background that gives the first two books much of their appeal, and makes an interesting story that leads up to a really exciting if bloody (and rather over-the-top) climax. Rina is heavily involved, and although Decker does nearly all the real detective work, she still all too readily, and much to his annoyance, keeps putting herself in danger. You can understand why he felt that she "was pushing him beyond the pale, as if she got a charge out of driving him crazy. The honeymoon was definitely over." And he told her in no uncertain terms, "You want to stay married to me, you stay out of my business ....You are hindering me. I get so goddamn nervous trying to baby sit you, I can't do my friggin' job." But then, in the end, it is she who comes to his rescue.
Of the two of them, she makes the more convincing character. He sometimes seems to behave in a strange way for an experienced police officer, as when he uses his handcuffs to confine Rina to his car, instead of taking them with him to make an arrest, and later when he fires furious shot after shot into a dead body. There is an odd bit too, In my English paperback edition, where he tells Noam , "I'm Sammy .... I'm married to Rina Lazarus". But the Sammy is presumably just a misprint for Peter. Less explicable is his adoption of Orthodox Judaism which seems to have had little effect on his conduct, and the strange way that it isn't until the end of this book that he suddenly thinks of his mother (the woman who had adopted him) in Florida and decides that they must visit her. He tells his real mother, "There isn't any dual-loyalty problem, Mrs Levine. You're a very nice woman, but I only have one mother," but until now there has been hardly a mention of her.
However, it remains a strong story that holds the interest throughout.
As the series progresses, there seems less and less justification for describing Laxzarus and Decker as clerical detectives, so I will not be reviewing the other books listed here:
False Prophet (1992)
|This was the first (and best) book in the series. It has been reprinted with various different covers. My favorite is the top one as it is the least cluttered and most religiously significant one.|