Michael Chabon is a talented writer, and perhaps the literary establishment's greatest defender of genre fiction. As a result of a few brilliant essays on the subject, serious-minded sf fans, like myself, have a lot of goodwill for the guy. His Kavalier and Clay reimagined the creation of Superman by Jewish immigrants in the 1930s with a little bit of magical realism added in for good measure, and won him the Pullitzer Prize. Thus, when Chabon returned with a novel with some mild speculative fiction elements (an alternate history), the sf awards took notice in a big way. It was a regular occurrence in the ‘70s, but this is the first award since the early ‘90s to get the Hugo, Nebula, and the Locus.
In the world of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, the Roosevelt administration followed through with a plan (just briefly considered in our world) to resettle Jewish refugees from the Nazis in an Alaskan colony. Israel, no longer the sole refuge, was destroyed in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, which of course created more refugees. The Jewish-Alaskan colony of Sitka is semi-automous, but is on the verge of reverting back to U.S. control as a conservative President plans to reassert authority (and possibly expel the Jews). Like Dick in The Man in the High Castle, Chabon never clearly explains his alternate world. The reader has to gather clues throughout the book (there are other tantalizing hints: JFK married to Marilyn Monroe?).
The background may be a speculative fiction alternate history, but the plot is pure noir. Alchoholic homicide detective Meyer Landsman stumbles across the murder of one of his neighbors, an odd chess-obsessed drug addict. Landsman and his half-Jewish, half-Tlingit partner Berko Shemets investigate, against the best wishes of the new police chief, who also happens to be Landsman's ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish. The department has higher priorities than a drug addict's murder, as she is trying to close out all open cases in the few months before Reversion to the United States. The investigation soon brings them into conflict with a Hassidic mafia, and eventually leads to a larger conspiracy that links the dead man with Landsman's recently deceased sister, Jerusalem, and the United States government.
Chabon is a fantastic writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. My one complaint is that the plot is a bit byzantine and sometimes feels a little contrived. There were moments when it felt more like James Bond than Sam Spade, what with the giant conspiracy and secret military training facilities. The novel is at its best in the quieter moments between Landsman, Shemets and their families, or when its revealing little everyday facets of Chabon's intriguing alternate history. The action set-pieces and the big mystery reveals felt more like distractions than thrilling plot-movers. Also, I think the more you know about Jewish culture, the more fun you'll have with the novel. I probably know a little bit more than the average goy, but I felt like I was still missing some subtle "easter eggs."