Michael Chabon has described this novel as an homage to the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Chabon's attempt is at once more ambitious and more cliched than the works he is referencing and the result is a disappointment. The book is set in an alternate present, one in which Jewish refugees, fleeing Nazi Germany, were given shelter in Alaska. In this world, the attempt to establish Israel in 1948 failed and now, sixty years on, the Jews are about to evicted from their American home too.
Detective Meyer Landsman is not particularly concerned with any of that. The body of a junkie with a passion for chess has been found in the flea-pit hotel that Landsman lives in and he's determined to solve the case.
His problems are familiar ones: he's an alcoholic, a maverick and he's been taken off the case. In this instance his boss, who happens to be his ex-wife, has taken him off the case because there's little support for solving difficult crimes with Alaska about to revert to American control.
Does Landsman do as he's told? Of course not. He plunges into the case anyway and gradually, more through luck than judgment, discovers that the future of the Jewish people is bound up in the case. And, cliche fans, the plot goes all the way to the top.
This clash of cliche and outlandish plot is the novel's weakness. It means the story never wholly convinces.
There's no excuse for the reliance on cliche. Hammett's writing still isn't hackneyed, even after 80 years of imitation. I think perhaps Chabon is having a little too much fun playing with his source material, to the detriment of the finished work.
Chabon is a very good writer. The imagery - and the writing here is almost entirely imagery - is frequently dazzling but it's not enough. The novel is technically impressive but hard to care about.