The threat of violence looms around every corner in Joel Stone's terrific Jerusalem File, set in a city where buses and cafes are potentially dangerous places, where even standing near a soldier might invite a terrorist’s attack. Everyone “lives on the edge of the unknown.” This smoldering tension gives a deeper resonance to Levin, the hard-boiled narrator, who blends observations about human nature with observations on the political situation of his city, a place he’d sourly like to see religion completely kicked out of. Maybe then, he thinks, there’d be a chance of sanity between two enemies, Jews and Arabs, that are historically made for each other.
Sure. Might as well try to eliminate greed or envy or jealousy. Or husbands suspecting that their wives are having affairs, a classic of PI literature and basic human turmoil, and the starting point of this book. Levin’s been hired to follow Professor Kaye’s wife and cinch the professor’s suspicions that she’s having an affair, but in a nifty twist, Levin is soon working for the lustrous, enigmatic wife, who penetrates the fog of grayness Levin lives in post-divorce, post-retirement.
Almost immediately, they’re not telling each other the entire truth. He’s caught by her beauty and her contradictions: “She had a way of seeming untruthful, even shrewd, when she probably was being sincere.” And she, well, her motives are mysterious, of course. Deborah hooks him hard with a femme fatale line that ranks with the very best in the genre. Aware of his intense longing to sleep with her, she says, “I wonder what you’d think if I told you it wouldn’t mean that much to me.” He’s of course utterly bedazzled, so that the simple act of waiting for her inspires romantic reverie: “Crowds of people passed before him. Watching for her face was like standing in a galaxy: every other face, every other form, was cosmic waste, dark matter, counted for nothing.”
But of course he waxes poetic only about Deborah. Otherwise he’s as full of downbeat observations as you’d expect from a former intelligence analyst who hates his life but won't lift a finger to change it. In a city of spectacular views he can’t even muster the energy to find one for himself, and so his windows lead nowhere. “Opening his black shutters to a small blind street, morning after morning, his world shrank to an alley before he even went out.”
The cynicism of PIs can sometimes feel recycled or little more than a pose, but it seems totally natural here in a city Levin thinks should be “one of the spent old cities of the world, a museum of a place, like Venice. By all appearances, it should have been, but frighteningly it was still alive. It had all the vital signs, the pulse, the breath, the veiny brain, and plenty of blood, more blood than water. It still bled—the world’s oldest wound—and likely it would never scab over, not with so many fingers picking at it, so many, over so long a time.”
For all his having been born there, it’s “a bad fit, tied to Jerusalem, a city living on faith, feeding on faith, choking on it.” Levin is actually part-French and half-heartedly longs for Paris but feels stuck in Jerusalem where his elderly mother stays locked in her apartment as if she’s still trapped in the Siege of Leningrad. Whenever the radio has a story about a terrorist bombing she cranks up the volume, reinforcing her sense of peril.
PIs are often drowning men whose cases might just throw them a rope and The Jerusalem File makes that clichéd situation brand new. Stone’s achievement in this book is impressive, from the perfectly pitched voice to the relentless accumulation of details of character and place that make you feel you’re bathing in that special Jerusalem light, and gazing with alarm into the city’s ominous shadows.