Will this work? I have my doubts. I’ve had the kind of afternoon where every time I reach for something I knock something over, and every time I pick something up I drop it (I’m exaggerating, but it feels like that). So I figure either my computer will crash or Bloo will go down just about the time I’m ready to post. But I shall make the effort.
I bought Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath (first in a series of mysteries involving Det. Peter Decker and widow Rina Lazarus) on the strength of my fondness for her husband Jonathan’s Alex Delaware novels. I had misgivings. Generally I don’t care for mysteries written by women (I’m not weighing in on our discussion, some time back, of whether men write the best mysteries or not. I find men usually write the best mysteries for me, which is a very different matter).
I was very pleasantly surprised. The Ritual Bath is both a satisfying crime story and a sensitive examination of the conflicts and stresses involved in being seriously religious in a secular society.
Rina Lazarus lives at an orthodox yeshiva (Torah school) in a run-down section of Los Angeles. Ordinarily an unmarried woman wouldn’t live at an all-male yeshiva, but her late husband was a student, and the school gave her a job and a home so that she could take care of her two young sons. Her job involves cleaning and caring for the mikvah (ritual bath), used monthly by students’ wives.
The night the novel begins, a young woman is attacked and raped outside the mikvah. Detective Peter Decker and his partner arrive to investigate.
There is immediate chemistry between the tall, red-haired detective and the tiny Jewish widow. But though Decker pursues her singlemindedly throughout the book, Rina has to explain, again and again, that there is no way she could possibly date a goy. As the likelihood grows that the rapist (who keeps coming back) may be someone inside the yeshiva, there are numerous opportunities for personal and professional missteps and misunderstandings.
The picture of life in an Orthodox community appears (so far as I can tell) to be pretty accurate. At least it’s credible. The constant nuisance of concern for ritual cleanliness is not glossed over, but neither are the joys of deep belief and genuine community life. (As a sideline, it made me more aware than ever of Paul’s statement that “the letter of the law kills,” and reminded me how grateful I ought to be that Christians are free of such.)
Another pleasure was Kellerman’s portrayal of Detective Decker. I suspect that one reason so many female writers have a hard time with male characters is that they find it both difficult and repellant to try to get into our heads. I found no false notes in Peter Decker. He struck me as a very believable decent guy, at once strongly aroused by Rina and making an honest effort to keep his hormones suppressed.
Another thing that made the book interesting (and problematic) from a Christian point of view was the fact that Det. Decker is increasingly attracted to the Jewish religion itself, as well as to a particular Jew, as the story goes on. We are told that he was raised a Baptist but is nothing in particular now. Question: If a secular person is drawn to Judaism, does that bring him closer to, or farther away from, Jesus Christ?
Another thing that struck me was how similar the book was to a lot of Christian Booksellers Association fiction. The tall, strong, unbeliever is drawn to the beautiful believer, and as love grows he is attracted to her faith as well.
Only Kellerman does it better. Her writing is on a higher level (not perfect, but far superior to most CBA, so far as I’ve read any), her characters more rounded and believable. Also the book is earthier. There are intense situations. There is bad language. Those things might disqualify a book from CBA, but they also increase realism, giving the story greater credibility.
I’ll read more of these.