By Michael Chabon. Published in 2007.
The noirish style has an unfortunate reputation for being stylish yet shallow, just a lot of easily parodied purple prose and bleak underworld melodrama. But at its best, noir has a genuinely tortured soul that elevates it above those trappings. The genre came to prominence during the grim 1930s and experienced a film revival during the tumultuous 1970s because, at heart, it’s not so much about the gumshoe and the femme fatale as it is about disillusionment in the face of a world that seems all but irredeemable. Noir is about legitimate paranoia and the rot of corruption and brittle cynicism masking the last shreds of idealism. It’s about flawed people feebly trying to do something good under impossible circumstances. Noir is a genre that speaks to troubled times.
So given the many troubles and traumas of today’s world, it makes sense that writer Michael Chabon decided to play with noir in his latest novel. He is, of course, famously interested in muddying the boundary between so-called “literary” novels and genre fiction, but The Yiddish Policemen’s Union isn’t just an exercise, and though it dances lightly, even teasingly, around many hard-boiled detective tropes, it’s not a parody. Set in a fully realized counterhistorical world with dark parallels to our own, Chabon’s noir fantasia demonstrates just how resonant the genre can be.