Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Faye Kellerman’s crime fiction has been consistently highly regarded since 1986. Her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series has won her millions of fans, and it’s about time one of her books was spotlighted on this feature. So let’s do that today; let’s turn the spotlight on the first of the Decker/Lazarus novels The Ritual Bath.
Yeshivat Ohavei Torah is a small Orthodox Jewish community and place of religious study. Located in the rural outskirts of Los Angeles, it’s normally a peaceful place, and except for a few unpleasant incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti, the residents are generally left alone and they cause no trouble. One night though, everything changes. One of the residents, Sarah Libbey, is raped as she leaves the community’s mikvah, or ritual bath. Although it’s not common to have a lot of outsiders in the community, the police are called in. LAPD detectives Peter Decker and Marge Dunn begin the investigation.
One problem they face is that this is a rather insular community and a lot of people aren’t comfortable talking to the police. What’s more, Sarah Libbey is devoutly observant of Orthodox Judaism and isn’t willing to discuss the rape, not even with Dunn. It’s an effort to even get her to consent to an exam, let alone provide any helpful information. So Decker begins to depend on Rina Lazarus, who supervises the mikvah and also serves as a teacher.
Lazarus is a widow who lives in the community with her two sons Shmuel ‘Sammy’ and Yaakov ‘Jake.’ Like the other members of the community, she is deeply religious and unwilling to compromise her beliefs. However, she knows that in order to find out who the rapist is, she’ll have to co-operate with the authorities. So, very uneasily, she begins to work with Decker.
It may be that this rape was committed by a serial attacker dubbed the Foothill Rapist. But there are enough differences in this attack that Decker also thinks the culprit could be someone else. To ensure everyone’s safety, a security guard Florence Marley is hired and for a short time, things settle just a little. But then, Marley is brutally murdered one night. Now the police have a rape and murder to investigate, along with the search for the Foothill Rapist.
One possibility is that the murder and rape were committed by the same person. It doesn’t seem likely for various reasons, but it’s possible. Then there’s the question of whether or not any of the incidents at the yeshiva are related to the Foothill Rapist. As Decker and Dunn face those questions, Lazarus has to deal with the very real possibility that someone at the yeshiva is a rapist or even a killer. She’s known the people who live there for a long time and finds that hard to believe, but she’s smart enough to know that it could be true. She also has to cope with the fear and sense of violation brought on by terrible crimes committed so close to home. In the end, she, Decker and Dunn bridge the many gaps between the yeshiva and the outside world and find out who is behind the terrible crimes.
And those cultural differences and gaps in understanding play an important role in this novel. Decker knows little about Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism. He’s not disrespectful of it, but he feels that solving the case should take precedence over religious traditions and laws. For her part, Lazarus is deeply devoted to her faith. As she puts it,
‘I’ve…found that I like being religious. There’s purpose in it and purpose in life is a rare treasure these days.’
More than once in this novel, she and Decker have to find ways to pursue the investigation without compromising the religious principles of those who live at the yeshiva and it’s not always easy. And yet you can’t really say that Lazarus is hard-headed or completely unwilling to listen to Decker’s point of view.
Because much of the novel is set at the yeshiva, readers also get a real sense of the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and tradition. Kellerman is herself Orthodox, and her knowledge of and commitment to her faith is clear in this novel. The members of this community have created a meaningful life for themselves and they are a strong group of people.
That said though, there are also several non-Jewish sympathetic characters. Decker, for instance, is a hardworking, skilled cop. He has a close relationship with his teenage daughter, and he does his job effectively. Readers who are tired of dysfunctional, alcoholic cops who are estranged from their children will be pleased with his character. Marge Dunn, too, is portrayed sympathetically.
At the same time, anti-Semitism is addressed in this novel and some of it is ugly. There are several terrible slurs and one scary incident that show that anti-Semitism is alive and well in late-20th-Century Los Angeles. It’s easy to see why the members of the yeshiva community are uncomfortable with outsiders.
The mystery is solved in part through gathering evidence, listening to what witnesses say, following up on leads and so on – in short, through police-procedural means. That aspect of the story is told from Decker’s point of view. Other parts of the story are told from Lazarus’ point of view, particularly scenes of daily life at the Yeshiva. And that information proves useful in finding out what really happened. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice the shifts here, but Kelllerman makes it clear throughout the novel whose perception is being shared.
One important story thread concerns Decker’s and Lazarus’ growing attraction to each other. Each is honest about it, but readers who dislike romance with their crime fiction – especially implausible romance – will be pleased to know that these two don’t immediately jump into bed. Lazarus doesn’t want to lead Decker on as the saying goes; she is devoutly Orthodox and doesn’t want to marry outside her faith. Decker respects that and although each admits the attraction, they also see the important differences between them. Fans of these novels will know what happens to these two as the series goes on; I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read the series.
The Ritual Bath is the story of what happens when a horrible crime comes to a culturally unique and even somewhat mysterious (to outsiders) community. It features protagonists who have both strengths and faults, and gives readers an ‘inside look’ at a religious tradition and way of life that have a long history. The crimes are solved credibly and the story threads are pulled together logically. But what’s your view? Have you read The Ritual Bath? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 21 April/22 April – Paradise City – Archer Mayor
Monday 28 April/Tuesday 29 April – The Red Queen Dies – Frankie Y. Bailey
Monday 5 May/Tuesday 6 May – A Nail Through the Heart – Timothy Hallinen