Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Guaranteed reading with intelligence
Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Rosebush Murders by Ruth Shidlo

4 out of 5 stars 

The Thorny World Of Humanity

Danielle Hall is found dead in the peaceful grounds of an inner city park in Jerusalem.  She had been shot in the back of the head.  Investigation soon reveals that Danielle was a psychologist.  Could it be that a client has lost their cool?  Danielle was married to Mira Morenica and they have a daughter Shelia.  How will the family cope with this sudden and violent death?  D.I. Helen Mirkin finds that, despite her cool professionalism and objectivity, she cares for the survivors.   Helen must use all her skills, her logic and her intuition, to solve this case, even if just to give the Morenica-Hall family closure.

Ruth Shidlo’s first novel, The Rosebush Murders, is a fine police murder mystery.  While not quite of the ‘hard boiled’ style, this book is a no-nonsense account of a classic crime investigation case.  There is no histrionics here, but we follow the plot with interest as Shidlo step by step reveals the mystery of the murders.  At the same time Shidlo reveals to us bit by bit exactly who her character Helen Mirkin is.  Even more Shidlo digs into some of the questions of life that fascinate us all.

The novel follows a fairly standard structure.  In the first half we are given a complex of defuse plot threads that leave us asking, “What does this all mean?”  Life is of course often like this and any crime investigation is at first an open question.  Some of us like to think that we understand all about our life but philosophers, psychologists and scientists will tell us that things are not necessarily simple or obvious.  The second half of the novel moves more swiftly as the hunt nears its close.  Shidlo skilfully draws her themes and imagery neatly together to a satisfying conclusion.  One small criticism is that the first half is perhaps just a little too long.  Just before midway we begin to grow slightly tired, wondering where will all this lead?  The opening of the book has some very well written descriptions.  The long section describing Helen’s viewing of the corpse and crime scene is excellently written.  We get a real sense of the ugliness of the death.  Murder is of course a heavy subject and requires serious writing, however, Shidlo has included some moments of humor to lighten the mood.  Most of this humor comes as banter between Helen and her colleagues.  In Chapter 8, after a late night and restless sleep, Captain Adam Tamir, Helen’s boss, comments, “You look fresh as a lettuce.”  Police detectives need some release from the pressure of their work and so does the reader otherwise reading a novel like this would become a chore.  Shidlo has included the occasional ‘aha’ moment and surprise chapter ending which helps us keep turning the pages.

This novel is of the mystery genre; however, Shidlo supplies us with questions beyond the intrigue of the crime.  “Who is Helen Mirkin?” we wonder, and as the novel progresses we dig deeper into the character.  We get to know Helen as we get to know a friend.  On first impression we like her very human responses to the brutal murder and her compassion for the relatives, but then questions arise and we wonder what her life beyond work is, what her past is and what motivates her?  By the end of the book we certainly feel we have got to know Helen better.  Beyond this many characters in the novel have secrets.  We meet a series of people who are unknown to us, as they are to Helen, some leaving us with a good impression, some bad.  By the end of the book we have certainly got to know the criminals better.  It should be noted, however, that Helen is the only sympathetic character which Shidlo develops.  In this array of character sketches one more individual we can relate to, developed to some depth, would have been good for reader empathy.

Murder is an act of dominance and The Rosebush Murders primarily has the theme of power.  The philosopher Michel Foucault, and many others, have pointed out that much of society revolves around power and keeping people, organizations, classes and societal institutions in control.  This theme is developed in many different ways.  We see, for example, right from the Prologue onwards references to Fascism and the Nazis.  This group, with its aim of European domination, and perhaps even world domination, is the ultimate example in modern history of the thirst for power.  For this book, set in Israel, Fascism is of course a very potent example of the real and extreme effects of a desire for power.  Also much of the story revolves around City Hospital, Jerusalem’s prestigious and world famous establishment.  Here we see the world of bureaucracy which, as the sociologist Max Weber (Economy And Society: 1922) and the novelist Franz Kafka (The Trial: 1925) have pointed out, are very efficient and rational but can also lead to a “polar night of icy darkness” and an “iron cage” (Weber) which crushes the individual.  City Hospital is depicted as literally a very large, complex warren in which Helen fears getting lost.  The air is constantly stale.  In Chapter 15 we see a visit to, Dr. Lev, a cardiology specialist, who is surrounded by cold technology.  To get there Helen walks down “long, grey corridors” bathed in “ice-cold white neon lights” past machines that are “dinosaurs … [which] … had seen better days…”  The specialist, along with others at the hospital, is cold and distant.  Doctors in general are depicted as having power over life and death: they decide our fate.  Religion also appears as a social institution prying into our lives and pushing us about.  Terrorism also makes an appearance in the book.  In the nine days the book covers there are two encounters with suspected bombs.  Terrorism, nationalist and religious, is of course a fact of life in Israel and this is just how Shidlo depicts it.  Terrorism is murder on the large scale and the contemporary equivalent of Nazism: an extreme grab for power.

Religion is indeed so prominent in the book that it can be considered as a theme in its own right.  The ecclesia is meant to be a protection but Shidlo depict it more as a controller.  Certainly much of the music that Helen listens to, sings, and takes comfort and restoration from, is religious based.  In Chapter 38, while Helen rehearses her choir pieces, we read:

“I felt the prayer pour from me and at its conclusion felt somehow cleansed of the oppressive atmosphere of the hospital.”

But of course this is very much a personal, informal, unstructured, untheological experience.  This is not the religion of the synagogue, of orthodoxy.  In Chapter 8, in the context of a conversation about cancer, the Biblical notion of “sanctuary cities” is disparagingly mentioned as a metaphor.  The idea of criminals escaping to a safe city, beyond the grasp of the law, is of course objectionable to police and something objectionable about Judaism is implied.  By far the most important plot line in this theme is the scenario about the Morenica-Hall family wanting to bury their family member in a way free from the “despotism of the Orthodox Rabbinate…”  Here religion is seen as a kind of ‘fascism’ in the popular use of the term.

Death is central to the book, but this theme goes well beyond the plot line of murders.  Death is depicted as something we must come to terms with, something that is pervasive and inescapable.  In Chapter 14 Dr. Kate Jordan, head of the interns, comments:

“Makes you wonder what separates you from death, doesn’t it?  We take so much for granted…”

As we learn more about Helen we see how important the death of her own father is to her.

Interestingly H.E. Eysenck in his essay The Psychology Of Anti-Semitism (Uses And Abuses Of Psychology: Penguin Books, 1953) identifies “superstition … i.e. a belief in the mystical determinants of the individual’s fate …” and “power and toughness”  as statistically discernible features of Fascism.  He further notes of this group:

“There also seems to be relatively little enjoyment of sensuality or of passive pleasures such as affection, companionship, or art and music …” (p. 271)

And later:

“… art, music, literature, and philosophy … may be considered … interests [that] contribute substantially to greater resourcefulness, and to the comparative diversion from power and status …” (p. 277)

Power and religion (superstition) are, as we have seen, central themes in The Rosebush Murders.  Helen, the central character, seeks her friends to relax, is looking for a partner, looks at the art on the walls of the abodes of those she interviews, is interested in music and quotes literature.  She stands against those who would grab power.

Shidlo’s novel is definitely in the main part a no nonsense police drama, however, it also contains some imagery, which gives the book greater depth.  As we have seen music, choirs and opera are a part of the characterization.  Music also takes on a symbolic nature as a metaphor for life.  Music brings Helen great pleasure and relaxation and she uses it as an escape from the pressures of her work.  At the end of Chapter 6 we see Helen tuning her car radio to a jazz program while returning to the office after a difficult interview with Mira Morenica.  In Chapter 13 Helen unwinds from a tiring day with music.  Music communicates feeling and most composers would say that they hope to capture some quality of life.  Music can be joyous, help us to express sadness and even be dramatic and tense.  Nature also repeatedly is depicted as beautiful and relaxing.  It is contrasted with humanity and civilization.  In Chapter 3 Helen takes in the quiet beauty of the Morenica-Hall’s garden, but later in the chapter she drives passed the wrecked hulks of vehicles left over from the War of Independence.  Nature certainly is restoring to us but there is one or two hints of danger.  In Chapter 10 Shira, Danielle and Mira’s friend, comments on a “cute cat” she sees out of the police station window.  Helen responds, “It’s not easy to be a street cat.”  On a different tack police work is frequently compared to a psychologist’s job.  Helen must of course help the victim’s family cope with grief, but also detection itself requires a knowledge of human nature, reading facial expressions, searching below the surface for hidden facts, and a Freudian ‘free association’ of one thing with another.  In Chapter 11 Helen jokes with Dr. Sol, Danielle’s psychoanalyst and friend, about the similarity of their professions.  Helen comments, “In fact would you care to join the Psychological Service of the Police Force?”  Life is full of problems and in a way we are all in need of ‘the psychiatrist’s couch.’

Ruth Shidlo is a qualified psychologist and it is no surprise that this book is an accurate picture of life in that respect.  Shidlo recognizes that people are of diverse motivations, that they have secrets, that while not suffering from a diagnosed illness they can have “rescue fantasies” (Ch. 7).  Dreams as revelations of personal reactions, turmoil and thought feature fairly prominently.  (Ch. 7 & Ch. 41)  Dr. Ann Faraday’s Dream Power (1972) is a good source illustrating this approach to self-development.  Suicide is depicted, not as a real desire for death but as a cry for help and an attempt at communication.( Ch. 55)   (Robert E. Larson, ed.  Preparing To Listen: Contact Teleministries, c1978, p. 99)  Shidlo is of course also correct on the psychology of a killer.  (Martha Stout. The Sociopath Next Door: Broadway Books, 2005)

A lesbian couple are at the center of this murder mystery and GLBTIQ issues are thus quite prominent.  Queer people and their immediate families are generally depicted with respect.  In Chapter 3 Sheila shows Helen  a photo of her and her two mothers on holiday.  We read:

“Shelia was in the middle, looking happy and contained and proud.”

The word “proud” has of course come to have special meaning to LGBTIQ people, as in, for example, ‘pride marches’.  Danielle’s mother is completely accepting of the lesbian matching. (Ch. 10)  The problems which queer couples face is also mentioned, for example, the difficulties of donor parenting. (Ch. 56)  Bigotry occasionally rears its head.  In Chapter 12 Adam, on hearing that the lesbian couple are married comments, “Wonders never cease.”  In Chapter 33 a minor character brings on the bigoted, fantasy notion of a powerful heterosexual man “converting” a lesbian woman.  Shidlo also does not err in being overly favorable to LGBTIQ people.  In Chapter 24 Daniel blocks a gay couple from receiving IVF.  No special favoritism there.  None-the-less Shidlo notes the sociological fact that people, including LGBTIQ, have an affinity for others of similar background.  (C. Peter Wagner. Our Kind Of People: J. Knox Press, c1979)

The Rosebush Murders also has quite a good standing from a feminist perspective.  The book is full of successful professional women and femininity is depicted in all its many and varied forms.  In Chapter 50 we encounter a typical male chauvinist in the form of IVF researcher Alberto Silberman.  Once again women are not patronized by being overly favored either.  There are a number of unsympathetic female characters as well.

As we have already seen society is examined to a certain extent, particularly in terms of bureaucracy.  City Hospital is very much a wealthy establishment and an institution for the privileged.  (Ch. 23)  From a Marxist view the latter is no surprise.  Money means power, and power means elites.  When success is over-rewarded and over-valued others suffer.

Israel is a place of many ethnicities and national backgrounds as the diaspora have returned to it and consequently Shidlo’s novel represents a view of the world and its people beyond the narrow limits of nationalist literature. The disabled make a brief appearance in Chapter 14 in the form of Dr. Maurice Leibovici, the head the Outpatient Psychiatric Clinic.  Leibovici is successfully working in a prestigious job, but is a bit gruff.  The picture is positive but not over flattering.

Ruth Shidlo’s The Rosebush Murders is excellent for those interested in police work and murder mysteries.  While displaying the standard features of this type of novel, it also has more unusual themes such as power and religion.  The imagery of music, art and psychology gives the book further depth.  To varying degrees the book is successful in presenting psychological, LGBTIQ, Feminist and Marxist perspectives.  The novel is, however, most of all simply an entertaining read, excellent to relax with.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 out of 5 stars.

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