Lavie Tidhar has made his reputation turning genre fiction on its head. In Osama, he tackled the war on terror by imagining Osama bin-Laden as a fictional character in a series of pulp adventure books. In The Violent Century, Tidhar mapped the comic book world of Marvel and DC onto the cold war, creating a spy novel with real heart. And now, with A Man Lies Dreaming he’s tackling the detective novel – but this is not your standard mystery.
Much of A Man Lies Dreaming is set in the London of 1939. It’s an auspicious choice; war in Europe looms, and in Tidhar’s imagining of the period Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists are on the verge of a stunning general election victory. This is due in no small part to their playing on British fears of a foreign invasion from Europe, and Tidhar has a lot of fun writing speeches and dialogue that have a very contemporary feel, and could have come straight out of a UKIP or Britain First manifesto.
1939 was also the year in which Raymond Chandler’s first (and arguably most influential) novel The Big Sleep was published. Tidhar seems to be actively channelling Chandler in this book – there are frequent riffs and references to Big Ray – but these motifs and influences are distorted, as if in a fairground mirror. I laughed in surprise early on in the book when a character speaks admiringly of his mother tongue: ‘German had a martial tune; it was neither tarnished nor afraid‘ – the last part a direct lift from Chandler’s essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’ These nods to Chandler continue, until this exquisite take on one of the most imitated sections in detective fiction, the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep:
‘I was dressed in my beat-up old raincoat, a suit that’s seen better days, scuffed shoes and a fedora that didn’t quite fit me. I was shaved but awkwardly. I had a bruise the size of a hen’s egg on the back of my head, where I had been knocked out twice in the space of an hour several days back, and I was sober but for the drugs they had given me at the hospital… I didn’t know how much Rubinstein’s house was worth but my guess was plenty. I was calling on Jewish money.’
Tidhar’s narrator is Wolf, a German refugee. Once a politician in his home country and on the brink of power, in 1933 he was forced to leave following a Soviet-backed coup. Finding sanctuary in London, Wolf now makes his living as a private detective, operating out of a dingy Soho flat. His true identity is one of the book’s most audacious moves – not difficult to work out, it’s still one that I shrink from revealing in case it prevents you from reading the book. And trust me, you really, really should.
Wolf reluctantly takes on the case of a missing Jewish woman, who disappeared whilst being smuggled out of Communist Germany. His investigations also lead Wolf in the direction of Mosley, uncovering a web of corruption that reaches far and wide. In the best traditions of detective fiction Wolf’s investigation is not without numerous blind alleys, of which Chandler himself would have been proud.
Wolf is also a detective at the mercy of the conventions of the genre – during the course of the book we see him beaten, drugged, and wrongly accused. So far, so conventional – but what gives A Man Lies Dreaming an added dimension is that Tidhar offers up an explanation for all this humiliation. For Wolf’s story is framed by a very different narrative – that of Shomer, the dreaming man of the title (itself an echo of Chandler’s The Big Sleep) and inmate of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Shomer is a former pulp author; and he constructs the narrative about Wolf as a way of keeping both the horrors of the camp and the heartbreaking memories of his family at bay.
The sections where Shomer recalls spending Shabbat with his wife and children are truly heart-breaking, and stand in stark contrast to the lurid narrative that Wolf is part of. They also serve to give this noir fantasy a very real, very human face, something often lacking in a genre accused of exploitation. The same cannot be said of Tidhar’s book, despite the darkness of his subject matter.
A Man Lies Dreaming is a hall of mirrors, but one I urge you to step into. You’ll feel the ground shift beneath your feet, in both obvious and much more subtle ways, which is surely the point. As with the best literature, after reading it you’ll look at the world in a very different way, one more open to the alternative readings and interpretations which exist around all of us.