When Jerusalem detective Avram Cohen publishes his memoirs, they provoke a journey into his past and illustrate why this complex, thoughtful man "makes a wonderful resonant hero" -- Booklist
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Of all his many regrets, it was his decision to write his memoirs that Avram Cohen now regretted the most because for the first time in a long time, there was someone he would have liked to have killed.
Actually, a whole group of people. Agents. Publishers. Journalists. Especially journalists. Particularly Benny Lassman. Many others might have agreed with Cohen. Cohen blamed himself, of course. He never should have given the manuscript to Lassman.
When he began, the writing had been an experiment, just a way of learning how a computer worked, specifically the word processor that came with the machine. It all began as an exercise. He had written a few paragraphs, which became a few more pages, and then as his fingers learned to fly faster over the keyboard and he had begun to hear his own voice telling the story, the writing had become cathartic, almost visceral, the release of something long denied. So by the time he had reached the telling of his years in Jerusalem as chief of criminal investigations, he had decided that he was trying to write a book. Or was it a book of that he wasn't sure.
Over the years he had met several of Jerusalem's most famous authors, under circumstances that included returning stolen property to a longtime contender for the Nobel Prize, breaking up fistfights between a pair of best-selling authors in a rivalry that had its origins in the different undergrounds they had joined as teenagers during the British mandate in Palestine, and once, under orders, letting a magazine writer spend a week as Cohen's shadow for a profile of "the top detective in Jerusalem."
None of the authors hadreally trusted Cohen he was, after all, a policeman, who observed too much. "Nice, nice," they had all said, each in his own way, when Cohen had taken his manuscript around to ask their opinion. "But it needs work." And none had volunteered to help.
The poet had been impressed with the quantity of words; the historian had said it was anecdotal, though it did show the connection between Cohen's life and the larger forces of the times he saw. The novelist had suggested there were copy editors who could help him with the grammar, "and add some color, some spice."
Nonetheless, by the time he had called Lassman he had decided that if Benny didn't offer help, he'd shelve the whole project. Of all the journalists in Jerusalem, Benny Lassman was the one he came closest to trusting, certainly the one whose articles best reflected Cohen's work as CID chief. Now Lassman was writing books himself. His book on the effects of the Intifada on the Israeli military had won him more foreign acclaim than local, but that was a result of the politics of envy. Cohen liked Lassman's book because it was nearer to the truth than the reports in the newspapers.
Lassman had been surprised by the call from Cohen, who was famous for keeping to himself, especially after an inheritance that overnight had made him wealthy. But when Cohen had explained what he wanted, Lassman had been both flattered and curious. No problem, he promised. He didn't say that if he liked the manuscript, he'd translate a few chapters and send them to his agent, Tina Andrews. Cohen didn't ask for that. But that's what happened.
She had called late one summer night to tell Cohen that TMC Publications, a media giant that bought and sold books, movies, records, TV shows, and multimedia CD-ROMs, was offering a million dollars for the North American rights.
"I've got Carey McCloskey on the other line. What should I tell him?"
"He's the editor at TMC."
"Will he help make the book better?" Cohen had wanted to know.
"Of course," she had promised. "But maybe I can get more. I'm still waiting to hear from."
Cohen had interrupted. "Will he help make the book better?"
"He's very ambitious. And young. He'll work around the clock for the book if he thinks it can be big. And he does."
"If he'll help make the book better, that's all I care about," Cohen had said.
"Then we have a deal. Great."
A few minutes later, they had all been back on the phone together in a conference call. It had begun with a young man's voice saying, "I loved it. Loved it. Despite everything, your struggle with your own conscience even in the face of pure evil comes through as authentic."
"I am not really a writer," said Cohen.
"Well, I understand that you did get some help from" McCloskey paused, not remembering the name. Cohen meanwhile was having a difficult time with the pronunciation of McCloskey.
"Benny Lassman," said Tina.
"Right," said the editor. "Lassman. Yes, well, it needs work. More color, perhaps, fix the rhythm with some careful cuts, and I think," the editor paused for effect, "we'll have a big book."
At the time, Cohen had thought the editor meant a physically oversize coffee table-type book, and was worried that he meant pictures. He did not like to be photographed, and kept no personal albums of photos. Of course, the veteran wire services working Jerusalem and local newspaper archives had his picture. But other than the mug shots, "killer photos" in local slang, which appeared on his various identity cards, he owned only two photographs that he cherished. One was the black-and-white wedding picture from 1968, when his hair was still black and his equally young bride's face optimistic. Four months later, she was dead. He visited her grave once a year on their anniversary. But every time he opened his desktop drawer, he saw that photo. The other showed him with Ahuva Meyerson, the woman who had been a special part of his life since her first week as the youngest judge in Israel. She was a legal prodigy who had given up an academic career for the bench. Both had felt the attraction from that first time they had set eyes on each other, and within a few weeks Cohen had found plenty of reasons to go by the courthouse to observe a proceeding or testify in a case, and, of course, to guarantee they'd meet again, and again.
They kept the relationship secret for nearly ten years, and even after he was forced to retire, they kept it discreet. By the time the gossip columnists figured out what was going on, observing Cohen and Ahuva appearing together in public on rare but significant occasions, Cohen was rich and Ahuva, twenty years Cohen's junior, was deputy president of the Tel Aviv District Court, on her way to the Supreme Court.
His picture of him and Ahuva was recent, taken on a trip to a tiny Greek island where they had spent a month that summer, the first vacation Cohen had ever enjoyed. The Greek housekeeper who took care of the little house they rented took the picture of them on the patio. The happy couple, against the blue backgrounds of sky and sea, stood smiling in the wooden frame on his desk.
So Cohen had protested, "no, no pictures," when McCloskey explained, but Tina told Cohen that whenever possible, autobiographies should include photographs.
"We'll need some publicity shots," said McCloskey; "and maybe we'll get someone to shoot some video we can use for a commercial and to pitch you to TV shows in the U.S. Then when you're here, we'll have some more taken."
"Can't the book speak for me?" Cohen asked. For that was what he believed a book should do, especially an autobiography, a memoir, written to pass on a lesson. If the book worked, it was self-explanatory, he figured. "Why interviews? And why do I have to go to America? Why can't the book speak for me?" he repeated.
"Avram?" asked McCloskey, "I can call you Avram?" Despite the combination of the phone speaker and long-distance connection disembodying the voice, McCloskey's voice suddenly seemed cooler, just a notch or two, but enough for the old detective's trained ear to catch the patronizing tone.
"Cohen is okay," he said.
"To make your book famous, we have to make you famous, Avram."
"That's the way it works," Tina confirmed.
"The way things work," McCloskey repeated.
Thus it began. The Americans commissioned Lassman, who had done the translation and initial editing before sending the manuscript to Tina, to research the archives. Lassman's ten percent of royalties grew to twelve and a half, so he didn't mind searching for photos of the retired detective. He found more than forty; mostly in newspaper archives, going all the way back to the passport-size official police portrait taken when Cohen was appointed to deputy CID chief. But the Americans wanted more. Reluctantly, Cohen found himself in the studio of a Jerusalem photographer he once used as a witness in a drug case. But the portraits were not good enough for Carey McCloskey.
A New York photographer so famous even Cohen had heard of her was dispatched to Jerusalem. She insisted on spending from morning to night with the old detective, wanting him to take her around the city to favorite haunts and scenes of crimes he wrote about in his book. Cohen demurred at that. In tiny Jerusalem word traveled fast, and Cohen preferred that, at least until it was published, the book remain a secret. The last thing he needed was word going out that he was getting his portrait taken. It would start the gossip. "Just in case," Cohen told McCloskey, who called annoyed at Cohen's lack of cooperation, "I want to keep the book secret until it's out."
"In case of what?"
"Who knows? Maybe you will change your mind."
"Nonsense," said the editor. "I've got sales excited about this project. No way this is going to coitus interruptus."
"I'd just prefer it remain secret until it's done," Cohen said. "Printed. In my hand."
McCloskey's enthusiasm for the project cooled another five degrees. The situation that puzzled everyone in publishing was that Cohen wasn't interested in money. He would cooperate with McCloskey to improve the writing, the story, the telling, the explanation. But Cohen showed no interest in the marketing. "You do what you have to do," he told Tina, "and I'll do what I can."
When Tina began pitching the book to German publishers, she suggested with Lassman stuck in the middle, understanding Cohen's sensitivities, appreciating the PR value of Tina's idea that Cohen might want to look up his birthplace in Berlin, or even travel to Munich for a memorial visit to Dachau, and add a chapter.
Cohen didn't get angry. He just said softly, "It's as if you didn't even read my book," and from then on, Tina was much more careful about what she suggested to him, while Cohen realized that Lassman, for all his work as a translator, editor, and intermediary between Cohen's semihermitage in Jerusalem's German colony and the strange and different world Tina and McCloskey and the photographer represented, didn't really understand.
Tina tried not to worry. "The fact TMC paid a million made it a lot easier to bring the Germans on board. And with them, we can get the Japanese and the English and probably the French." And Cohen, who had been enjoying a certain euphoria since the day Lassman had called excitedly to say that Tina Andrews loved his chapters, finally began to realize that he was in over his head.
Copyright © 1999 by Robert Rosenberg
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