A Different Kind of Whodunit

Murder on a Kibbutz    

by Batya Gur, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu, Harper Collins 1994

Reviewed 30 March 2002 by David P. Stern


          Murder mysteries wear many faces. The best use the crime story as a mere vehicle to introduce unfamiliar localities, cultures and eras, and interesting personalities. If you like this sort of reading, "Murder on a Kibbutz" is a trip worth taking

    To the average American, the kibbutz, Israel's communal village, seems like an exotic lifestyle, permeated by idealism and communal sharing. Reality is more complex. Idealism does exist, as do a shared lifestyle and strong community feeling--but one also finds dissension over ideology, e.g. whether children should stay overnight with their parents or in a "children's house," or whether elders should be housed in a central facility. The pervading sentiment is one of mutual kindness, born out of an open lifestyle in close quarters (anyone who cannot abide by it leaves), yet gossip, argument, divorce, subterfuge and bullying are not unknown, nor are hired employees from "the outside."

    A murder on a kibbutz is almost unheard of. Lives are so intertwined that tensions which might lead to this are quickly detected and resolved. Michael Ohayon, the police inspector assigned to handle a suspicious death on a kibbutz, quickly concludes that handling a crime in a kibbutz is much like handling one in a close-knit family. It is a fitting comparison.

    Batya Gur's unnamed kibbutz, somewhere in the southern coastland of Israel, is believably drawn (having stayed in one in the very same area, home to a cousin, I can personally vouch for that). Dalya Bilu's translation is fluent throughout. To an Israeli reader many personalities may seem like stock characters, but they too are believable, and if towards the end the plot becomes frayed, and the climax is somewhat implausible--still, the journey is what matters, not the arrival at its destination.

    These days most news from Israel concern the struggle between Jews and Arabs. In 1991, when this book was written, that conflict was more distant, something happening out of sight--and even now, in 2002, this still holds in many kibbutz settings. Sure, change is in the air. The old generation of kibbutz founders, which remembers British rule, the Holocaust and the war to establish Israel, is fading from the scene, and communal living, kibbutz style, may itself be eroding. Yet a lot remains, and this fast-moving crime novel, in an unusual setting, lets you taste a little of it.

Postscript (7 June 22 '05): Batya Gur passed away 19 March 2005, at age 57. Four other mysteries by her were published in English, all involving groups in Israel's society--"Saturday Morning Murder" ('92), "Literary Murder: A Critical Case" ('93), "Murder Duet: A Musical Case" ('94) and "Betlehem Road Murder" (2004).

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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 30 March 2002