Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Ritual Bath

The Ritual Bath
by Faye Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the first of (currently) 25 Decker/Lazarus thrillers by the wife and mother (respectively) of fellow authors Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman. For a change, I decided to start reading this series at the beginning, and so I was plunged straight into the world of 1986, which I last saw when I was 14 years old. It's pretty much exactly like the world today, except nobody had cell phones and the Internet wasn't a thing. Headlining the mystery are a divorced Los Angeles homicide detective named Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, a devoutly religious, widowed mother of two boys who runs a mikvah (the ritual bath you've been waiting to hear about) in a yeshiva (sort of a Jewish Bible college/seminary campus) in a neighborhood widely known, in vintage 1986 political incorrectness, as Jewtown.

Fated eventually to get married and become sort of a crime-solving duo, Decker and Lazarus first meet when a woman is raped coming out of the mikvah at closing time. If she had been running on schedule, Rina might have been the victim. In spite of the immediate chemistry between them, their different backgrounds and values keep them from becoming a couple (for now) – but only by the exertion of considerable willpower. Meanwhile, Decker struggles to solve the rape case before Rina gets hurt. He has plenty of suspects: a gang of anti-Semitic punks, a former Torah learner who lost his mind and was kept on as a charity case, another learner who once dated Rina but didn't round as many bases as he wanted to, and the unknown perpetrator of a series of rapes in a neighboring community – but there are holes in all of these theories. Meanwhile, a rape case turns into a murder mystery, and as the apparent danger grows, Peter becomes convinced that Rina is the intended target.

In addition to being a police detective thriller, this novel provides an (in my experience) unusual immersion into the culture of strictly observant, orthodox Judaism. The narrative invites the reader to sympathize with Peter Decker's frustration, partly as an investigator, partly as a sexual animal but mainly as a guy who genuinely cares about a lady, while at the same time presenting Rina in a noble light as she walks the difficult path between the modern world (by 1986 standards) and an ancient religion. For religious Jews, I suppose, this book and the series it begins are an opportunity to imagine themselves as characters in a crime thriller. For most everyone else, it's a solid mystery with a curiously tantalizing romance and an immersive introduction to a seldom-visited culture and system of values. It's edutainment, with a degree of respect for a historic faith rarely seen in mass market fiction these days.

Other titles in the Decker/Lazarus series are listed here – among them, Sacred and Profane, Milk and Honey, Prayers for the Dead, Serpent's Tooth, Murder 101, and The Theory of Death.

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