According to the book cover synopsis, “Rabbi Aviva Cohen is a 50-something, twice-divorced rabbi living a rather uneventful life in South Jersey. True, she has a family that is rather unconventional. And her first ex-husband is moving to her town. But her life takes a truly interesting – and sinister – turn when she agrees to officiate at the funeral of an unpopular land developer. She doesn’t expect to be told by two different people that he had been murdered. Nor does she expect that the first funeral will result in a suicide. …” I couldn’t have put it any better and Rabbi Ilene Schneider’s first book (and yes, there will be more) is a very nicely done first outing.
The first thing you’ll notice about this book is that the rabbi here is a woman. That’s not all that commonplace, but since my sister is also a rabbi, you can understand my interest in this book. Moreover, Ilene happens to have studied for the rabbinate with my sister, and they are friends. This “coincidence” is probably the reason why my brother decided to buy us this book. But there was no real coincidence here, since according to my sister, Ilene has been working on this novel for many years, and friends and family have been anxiously awaiting this publication.
But does this make this a good book? Firstly, there is nothing in this book that rings the least bit untrue about the workings of a rabbi (or female one in particular). In this, Schneider has written her alter-ego Aviva with warmth and an honest sense of humor. As the protagonist here, Aviva comes alive to us from these pages, and we could no doubt recognize her if we saw her on the street. Building Aviva’s world and surroundings with the author’s personal experiences is certainly obvious. Aviva is a female rabbi, and so is Ilene; Aviva is a birdwatcher, and so is Ilene; Aviva has an autistic nephew, Ilene has an autistic son, and the list goes on. Almost all the other characters seem very realistic, and are probably based on people Ilene has met or known. The biggest problem I had with the characters is that we don’t feel there is more than one prospective suspect. This means that we are only looking in one possible direction and the readers will guess “who done it” long before Aviva does, thereby removing most of the possible twist endings.
Another problem I had concerned explaining the Jewish references. While I can understand many Jewish traditions and terminology are foreign to most readers, I felt that the flow of the prose was disrupted by these explanations. If you’re thinking “give Schneider a break, she’s on new ground here”, I’d both agree and disagree. Yes, this is her first novel, but this isn’t the first rabbi sleuth book, nor is it the first novel heavy with references that need explanation. One solution to this problem would be a glossary at the end of the book, with explainable words or passages written in italics. This method worked perfectly in Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series.
My final niggle with this book was the inclusion of unnecessary background situations and characters. For example, one sympathizes with a lesbian couple that have to deal with an autistic son as well as a disapproving mother, who happens to be Aviva’s sister, who disagrees with Aviva about both the lesbian daughter and the care of their mother, and does so long-distance from Florida, which makes Aviva’s life difficult. But the fact that the only part of this situation that is relevant to the story is the fact that Aviva’s niece’s partner is a computer expert whose skills Aviva enlists to help solve the “case”. This means we were given a chunk of superfluous information here. Mind you, since we (or at least I) know that this isn’t going to be the last Rabbi Aviva Cohen mystery, this information could become relevant in subsequent books. But remember the old theatre rule “if you see a gun in the first act, there had better be a dead body by the end of act two”, which I think applies to mystery novels as well. That’s why I’m thinking that it would have been better to save these tidbits for the novels where they’ll be truly needed.
On the whole, this was a lovely read that had a very good premise and an interesting protagonist. The situations seem realistic and the characters were, for the most part, very much alive. Schneider’s style is comfortable and conversational, without being condescending or simplistic. I also enjoyed that she confined the action to the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, and understand that Ilene will be using this as a common theme in her next books as well. The chapters are short and the action flows logically and comfortably from one situation to another. This made for a fast, and fun read that I think anyone would enjoy, and I recommend you give it a try.
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