Interview with Dror Mishani

»Never Trust a Detective!«

Israeli writer Dror Mishani talks with Lars Schafft about his debut novel The Missing File, first one in his series with Inspector Avraham Avraham, good and bad crime fiction, and why you should not take everything for granted what you read.

Krimi-Couch: Mr. Mishani, The Missing File is your debut novel. More than once we can read in it that there is no Hebrew crime fiction. But now there is – thanks to your novel. Was it up to you to fix this problem?

Dror Mishani: First, it’s not me who’s saying this sentence, it’s Avi. And we know he’s not always right. I think he exaggerates a bit, because there were a few good crime novels in Hebrew (especially Batya Gur’s, of course), but still, just a few. I do hope the Avraham series can be a literary crime series that will contribute something to the genre, in Israel and maybe also in general.

Krimi-Couch: Could you please go into »literary crime series«? What does it mean to you in terms of »literary«?

Dror Mishani: A good question. I think it had to do with the goals of writing. I’m not trying to write a page-turner, I’m trying to write literature, using the detective genre. So for me, a literay crime novel is a novel about crime, but not only about crime (it is also about society, about language, about literature, about the genre itself etc ...)

Krimi-Couch: For me it seems The Missing File is kind of a post-modern crime novel. In some chapters everything is about literature itself, especially when Seev and Michael meet. Now you say that you are »trying to write literature« but Michael, Seev’s lecturer in creative writing, stresses: »Don’t write literature, write stories.« How does it fit together?

Dror Mishani: Like I wrote before, I don’t agree with everything my characters are saying or doing (especially not the killers)! Writing a detective novel is writing literature, in fact its writing according to a scheme, and Michael would be against that, too. I think he’s an arrogant writer and I’m sure he doesn’t read detectives! So he’s definitely not me. As to your definition of post modern detective, it’s up to you to say. I can agree that it’s a detective novel who is also about other detective novels.

»I started reading crime novels very early on as a child.«

Krimi-Couch: Some passages reminded me of the »Golden Age« concerning those references and to »play« with the genre. All that’s missing is a sentence like John Dickson Carr’s: »We’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we are not.« (The Hollow Man, 1935) -- You have a very special background concerning detective novels.

Dror Mishani: I think that like many other crime writers, I started as an avid reader. I started reading crime novels very early on – Doyle, Christie – as a child and stopped only when it was difficult to find more in my local library (because there were not many in Hebrew). Later on, I came back to the genre as a scholar, pretending to write a PhD on it. But the whole thing was just preparation for writing my series and The Missing File. This is what I like about writing in a genre: You’re not by your own. Avi is just joining this wonderful gallery of detectives from all around the world.

Krimi-Couch: What was your dissertation’s topic in detail?

Dror Mishani: As for my academic writing – I wrote my MA thesis on a different topic, the emergence of the Mizrahi (the oriental Jew) as a theme in Israeli literature. My PhD was supposed to be written on the history of detective fiction – but I’ll never finish it. Now I teach a course on the history of the detective fiction in TA University though (and a few writing workshops).

Krimi-Couch: Avi Avraham is from my point of view a very special person in this gallery: He is in uniform, smokes quite a hell lot of cigarettes, suffers more or less of the combination of the surname as first name and more over – he is not one of those genius we know from the genre. How did you develop this character?

Dror Mishani: I think that the first thing I knew about Avi, before writing him, was that I wanted a detective who’s after innocence, more than after guilt.

Most detectives are searching for the guilty, and in their search they accuse-frame the whole world (just think of Poirot and the classic detective novel – there is one killer, maybe, but all the other characters are suspects too. and sometimes they’re all killers! – Orient Express).

I wanted a completely opposite detective – one who wants to believe people are innocent. This makes him sometimes a bit »blind« – because not all are innocent – but this is how I wanted him to start.

In the second novel, A Possibility of Violence, he’s already a bit different – and in the third (that I started writing), even more so. But I want this »craving« for innocence to remain a part of him, even if it makes him less of a »genius« sometimes.

By the way, as for the smoking – I was a heavy smoker and it was clear to me that my detective will smoke too. But exactly a month ago I stopped – and Avi continues – and I find it very difficult to write a heavy smoker while trying not to smoke!

Krimi-Couch: Are there any more similarities between you and Avi?

Dror Mishani: Yes, I think quite a few: our relationships with parents, perhaps, our romance, although he’s sometimes an extreme version of me. But I think he’s also someone that I would like to be, sometimes – I envy his profession, for one.

Krimi-Couch: As we both know, a police inspector’s work is monotonous most of the time – unless he is protagonist in a detective novel. What is this profession’s charm for you?

Dror Mishani: Yes, maybe, but I imagine this work only through detective novels so it looks kind of glamourous (even Avi’s). And you know, although writing is the thing I enjoy doing the most (at least as work), it can be monotonous too sometimes. And a police inspector’s job is, in my mind, still more meaningful.

Krimi-Couch: Although Avi’s job is rather engaging he uses his spare time not only to read about crime (fiction) but to be a better detective than the fictional one. So his work is melting with his hobby, he is a 24/7 investigator.

Dror Mishani: Yes. I think that in sense he’s born a detective: there’s something he doesn’t understand in the world, and he’s trying to figure it out. Unlike for other detectives, the genius ones, the world to him is somewhat unclear, including people he loves, including himself even, and he has a double desire towards this unclarity: He wants to understand it but he’s also afraid of what he’ll understand. As to the reading thing, in this we’re close, too. In fact, I admit to giving him my theory that all literary detectives are wrong – that you can read every crime novel and prove the solution is different than suggested by the detective.

Krimi-Couch: That sounds interesting! Okay, in The Missing File the twist in the end that Avi may have been wrong as well, backs your thesis up. But are there any other examples for this you have experienced in reading crime fiction, either in reading for fun or for academic issues?

Dror Mishani: Of course! I can prove that this is the case for every good detective novel – from Poe’s first The Man of the Crowd until today. Avi also gives a very good example in The Missing File – Poirot’s first case, where he accuses an innocent person, for his own personal reasons.

Krimi-Couch: Is that another thesis: Don’t ever trust the author? (which would allude to post modernism again)

Dror Mishani: No, it’s: Never trust a detective! I think the authors are not always aware of the fact that their detectives trick them, »behind their backs«. But of course you’re also right and in this genre you’re not supposed to trust the author either – which just highlights the fact that one of the genre’s main question, from its beginning, was that of trust (on a personal level, a political level, even a metaphysical one): Who do we trust or who do we believe? And should we really trust them? The detective story, on the surface, always tells you to trust the detective (sometimes bluntly – like Watson does about Holmes); But on a deeper level, it always also asks you: »Why do you really trust him?« (after all he’s a drug addict, emotionally unstable – and lied a lot, about his death for instance [referring to Holmes]).

»I had one big «crisis» while writing, when I was afraid for a few days that my novel is «lost» (or that I lost him).«

Krimi-Couch: I suppose it was rather risky to write a detective novel with your academic background, you could have been regarded as Mr. Know-it-all. Did you have any doubts about your novel when writing?

Dror Mishani: To be honest, I had one big »crisis« while writing, when I was afraid for a few days that my novel is »lost« (or that I lost him), but after I got over this, I felt I was writing a good story. I did have doubts about regarding finding readers for it: I knew that Israeli readership isn’t very interested in crime novels and that in the US and in Europe they usually go for other books from Israel (more politically explicit). So I was extremely happy when Israeli readers enjoyed it and even more so that readers around the world loved it and found themselves in it, despite the fact that it’s very local (I think) and that it’s not as quick and bloody as some of the American or Scandinavian thrillers.

Krimi-Couch: Can you sum up what the difference between good and bad crime fiction is?

Dror Mishani: It’s an excellent and very important question and I’ll try to answer it as good as I can (and know) for now: A good crime novel is a novel that cares for the fate of all its characters – the victim, his/her family, the witnesses, the criminal itself; It’s a novel that understands that a crime is always also an emotional drama and often an emotional tragedy – and again, for the victim but often also for the criminal. A good crime novel knows that the roots of the crime are always deep (within society as well as within the criminal’s biography), that it didn’t start a day or two before it happened and that it’s consequences will exist in the world long after the criminal is caught. A good crime novel is always about pain. And it always has a detective that sees – or at least tries to see – all that. A bad crime is the opposite.

Krimi-Couch: How important is society for the contemporary detective novel in general? And how important in detail the Israeli society for your crime fiction?

Dror Mishani: I think society is extremely important to the good crime novel. This is one of the lessons that the best Scandinavian crime (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Mankell) taught us: Crime fiction is a good literary tool to write about society, and crimes cannot be fully understood without social context. I hope this is also the case for my novels: I’m not trying to »map« Israeli society (as Batya Gur did, and very well, I think), or refer to every social class or group; But I am trying to root my stories in the social context that they take place in. And I can tell you that writing about Holon, this grey suburb of Tel Aviv that I was born and raised in, was one of the most important aspects of writing The Missing File.

»I started the third novel in the series a few weeks ago.«

Krimi-Couch: As you mentioned before you are going on with the Avi series. What may we excpect from him/you? What are your goals?

Dror Mishani: Well, the second novel in the series, A Possibility of Violence, already came out in Israel three months ago. I was surprised by how well it was received because it’s dark and wasn’t easy for me to write. I think Avi is a better detective there. I don’t know if he’s a better man, though. And I started the third novel in the series a few weeks ago – I’m only beginning so I can’t say a lot, only that I feel Avi has grown and that the crimes in this story are frightening me.

Krimi-Couch: What does Dror Mishani do when he does not read, teach or write crime fiction?

Dror Mishani: Apart from writing/reading/teaching I think I’m mainly trying to be a good father to two small children. In the spare time (and it’s very short) I try to relax from doing all of the above.

Krimi-Couch: Thanks for the interview, Mr Mushani!

Interview by Lars Schafft, August 2013.