One of my favorite genres of fiction has always been mysteries. Doesn’t matter what sub genre they might fall in (hard boiled, cozy, police procedural, the list could go on for the whole post), I enjoy the thrill of trying to figure out why the who did the what to the other who. Until reading Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”, I never would have thought to take those mysteries and pair them up with alternate history. But as I look more and more into the Alternate History genre, I’m finding that Mr. Chabon is not alone in wrapping a “Who dunnit?” in the cloak of “What if?”.
In “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” Detective Meyer Landsman plays out the part of the disillusioned alcoholic cop in a world where Israel barely existed and Jews fleeing Europe in World War II ended up in the Federal District of Sitka, a temporary refuge created by the American government . With Robert Harris’ 1992 novel “Fatherland”, we get to follow around a homicide detective by the name of Xavier March as he attempts to unravel murders taking place in a Germany that won World War II and covered up the holocaust.
“Fatherland” is set in a 1964 where Joseph P Kennedy Sr. is the US President and Adolf Hitler is still the Fuhrer of Germany. The novel format is perfect for marrying alternate history to a mystery. There’s plenty of time to weave bits of divergent history in between the clues to solving the crime. And that still leaves plenty of room for character development.
The short story, however, I’m not completely convinced is a fitting medium for coupling these two genres. I’ve recently begun reading the 2008 “Sideways in Crime: An Alternative Mystery Anthology” edited by Lou Anders and I’m having mixed feelings. In some stories, like the late Kage Baker’s “Running the Snake”, which was set in Elizabethan England, the alternate history portion worked well for me, but the mystery fell a little short. I enjoyed the tale but in the end, it felt a bit like a magician waving his magic wand and, poof, the crime is solved. With other stories I find myself getting into the crime and missing some background on the history of the alternate world. The stories have been enjoyable (even when they’re a little weird), but I haven’t found one yet that gives me the detail I need for each genre.
I’m not giving up hope though. This anthology won’t befall the same fate that another alternate history anthology met back in the 90’s. After reading two stories and scanning over a couple others, I was turned off and tossed it in a box. I believe it’s still quietly molding away somewhere in my parents’ basement.