Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death, by Mark Reutlinger. Alibi / Random House. Kindle e-book $2.99 and other e-book providers.
Random House has recently developed several new e-book imprints, each focusing on a popular genre. Alibi is the mystery and suspense imprint. It is not likely that these titles will be available in traditional print editions. Mark Reutlinger’s new book is one of the first in the Alibi category. Set in a retirement community for Jewish senior citizens, it introduces novice sleuth Rose Kaplan (the Sherlock) and her second banana Ida Berkowitz (the Watson who tells the story). Both women are in their mid-seventies.
For years, Rose Kaplan’s extraordinary matzoh ball soup has been the Seder staple at the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors. Though the selected soup is the result of a competition among participating residents, Rose is almost always the winner. This year, however, something puts a damper on this gastronomical event: Bertha Finkelstein, a quiet woman who chose to eat by herself, dies while eating her soup. Was it a bad matzoh ball or tainted chicken broth? No. She choked on a diamond earring that had somehow found its way into her soup. Or so it seems.
The solo diamond earring, it is soon believed, had most likely been stolen from another resident at the home, the elegantly dressed, well done-up and somewhat forgetful Daisy Goldfarb. Since Rose had as much access to the earring as anyone else, and since she had control over the kitchen while making her soup, she is considered a person of particular interest by the first investigators: on-call physician Dr. Arnold Menschyk and surly Mr. Pupik, the general manager of the home.
They grill Rose, clearly thinking she must have had something to do with both the theft and the murder. How she responds to their innuendos delightfully reveals her strong personality and her cleverness. The two policemen who come to investigate also seem to suspect Rose, but she has already begun playing Sherlock Holms – rationally exploring the possibilities of how that earring could have gotten into her soup and using Ida as her sounding board.
The suspense builds and the mystery unwinds with the twists and turns that mystery fans expect. Rose has a good mind for eliminating possible perpetrators and weighing various speculations against one another, deciding what needs to be explored further and what doesn’t. Her mind is a fabulous thing, and she doesn’t waste it.
Some of her methods, like having a professional burglar check out a resident’s apartment for her in a search for the missing earring, may seem questionable. However, she is not getting any information or help from the police.
Just as entertaining as the mystery plot is the portrait of the community. The Home for Jewish Seniors has a particular social milieu, and author Reutlinger captures it well. The slightly patronizing yet humorous stereotypes, the Jewish/Yiddish slang terms, the short-cut explanations of Passover and other aspects of Jewish culture, and even the patterns of speech are handled with affectionate accuracy.
Mr. Reutlinger populates the residence home and a few outside locations with a wide range of minor figures, each sharply individualized and efficiently exploited. There is the policeman whose father is a resident of the home, the young Conservative rabbi who abbreviates the service and speeds to the gastronomical centerpiece, various members of the staff (especially servers like Frank who handled the soup), and many of the other ladies and a few of the gentlemen who live there. There is even the owner of a nearby pawn shop who tells the dynamic duo that most pieces of diamond jewelry are quickly stripped of the diamonds – so there is little chance of finding something like a quality diamond earring for sale in such a place. (In fact, why would anyone buy one earring?)
Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death is not only a suspenseful mystery tale, but also a special kind of middle class comedy of manners. It is thoroughly engaging in bringing its challenging setting to life.
Q & A
PKJ: Did you have a particular Jewish community in mind as the place in which to locate this home for Jewish seniors?
MR: Yes and no. I did not have one specific place in mind, and I deliberately did not set the story in any particular city. I wanted to have the freedom to create the setting as I went along. (This is in contrast, for example, to my book Made in China, which I set in my home area of the greater Seattle region, and in which I therefore had to be careful to describe all of the setting’s features accurately.)
On the other hand, I did have in mind several facilities and communities with which I have been familiar over the years, and the “Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors” and its surroundings reflect those actual places, including San Francisco (where I grew up and where my dad spent his last years in an excellent Jewish retirement home); Tacoma, WA, where I live now and where both of my parents spent several years in a wonderful (but non-Jewish) retirement home; both Oakland, CA and Bellevue, WA, where my mother had somewhat unfortunate experiences as we tried to find the right kind of facility for her; and Vancouver, B.C., where we have lived and where my wife’s parents spent several years in another excellent Jewish retirement home. There is also a Florida connection, in that a good friend’s mother lived in Boca Raton and we heard lots of stories from there.
PKJ: Have you planned a continuing series for Rose and Ida?
MR: Yes. In fact, I am presently in the process of writing the second book, which will focus on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as the current book focused on Passover.
PKJ: How did you come up with this idea?
MR: As I recall, it began at a seder with family and friends, where someone made a joke about a “little old lady” expiring in her matzoh ball soup. (Sorry, I don’t remember the punch line.) For some reason this image stuck with me, and, as a reader of cozy mysteries and a novelist, I thought it would make a wonderful premise for a mystery story. Much of my fiction writing has been on the light, humorous side (Made in China, a political thriller, notwithstanding), so I just plunged into it and found it almost wrote itself.
PKJ: How did you develop it?
MR: I tend to let my stories develop as they go, in that I don’t have a detailed plot or character outline before I begin, just a general idea of where I’m headed. The story has a life of its own and can take some surprising turns. Although sometimes I create wholly fictional characters, in Mrs. Kaplan the characters are amalgams of people I have known well (like my grandmother) and not so well (like many of the residents of retirement homes I have met). I did want to make certain points in the course of the story, such as educating non-Jewish readers a bit about Passover (and Yiddish) and pointing out that life in a retirement home can be dynamic and fulfilling, rather than the grim picture that many people have (although there is, of course, that other side as well). I also wanted to illustrate the difficult, sometimes tragic background that underlies the personalities of many older Jewish people, but without, I hope, detracting from the lightness of the story.
PKJ: What was most/least enjoyable in bringing this title to completion?
MR: I love to write, and I especially love to write creatively, so the writing itself was the most enjoyable part of the process. (As a former law professor, most of my writing was of legal treatises and law review articles, which offer little scope for creativity.) I would sit down at the computer and let my imagination flow into the story, visualizing what Mrs. Kaplan or Ida (or the minor characters) would say, or how they would react, in a given situation. I also enjoyed learning more about Yiddish as I researched the language to be sure I correctly used the terms that I had heard (or used myself) so often over the years. (I don’t speak Yiddish, but I understand and often use the more common words and phrases.)
On the other hand, once I had written the first draft, the “work” part of the process began: I probably wrote ten or more drafts, rewrote several passages more than once, and even changed the title several times (it began as “Mrs. Kaplan in the Soup”). I tend to be a perfectionist, and that can really slow things down. By the time I submitted the final draft to Random House, I was not anxious to read the story yet again (although of course I had to during the copy-editing process).
This review with interview appears in the December 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota /Manatee).