Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case
by Batya Gur is a crime novel about life on a kibbutz in the northern Negev, a desolate desert region in southern Israel. The novel follows detective Michael Ohayon, featured also in the novel Literary Murder
(1993), as he investigates the death of the kibbutz internal secretary and the daughter-in-law of widowed teacher Dvorka Harel. Though officials state that victim Osnat Harel died of pneumonia or an allergic reaction, Ohayon is called in when medical examiners determine that she was, in fact, killed by a lethal, injected dose of an insecticide called parathion.Murder on a Kibbutz
, moving much slower than a typical American detective novel, is as much about the cultural world of the kibbutz as it is about the case itself. A kibbutz is a Jewish communal community. This particular kibbutz has 327 members, who all have their own families. They have an over-arching egalitarian system of sharing wealth and resources, contributing money and services, and supporting one another. The mother-in-law of Osnat Harel, Dvorka, makes it clear to investigator Michael Ohayon early on in the book that without any experience as a kibbutznik, he will be completely unable to understand their way of life or the intricate network of social connections that runs through their community. This becomes increasingly clear to Ohayon, who struggles to solve the case without panicking everyone in the community.
Michael Ohayon, who has appeared in previous novels by Gur, is a relatively bewildered and incapable detective. He constantly asks himself how he got promoted to manage the Serious Crimes Unit; his doubt and anxiety about his own ability to complete his job is clear throughout the book. Unclear about the inner workings of the kibbutz, Ohayon is hesitant to share the new details about Osnat's death, for fear that the community members will act out and turn against each other, making his life and his work much more difficult. Ohayon is also concerned about interacting too strongly with or being too threatening to Osnat's boyfriend, Aaron, who left the kibbutz to work in the Israeli legislature, the Knesset. Aaron has recently suffered a sudden heart attack, and Ohayon is concerned that pushing too hard will result in another medical incident, or perhaps even death.
Meanwhile, a number of difficult subplots make Ohayon's job more difficult. There is drama between Ohayon's boss, Brigadier General Nahari, and Inspector Levy, an outsider, over who gets to control this particular case. Aaron, also an outsider, was not Osnat's only partner – she is also married to a kibbutz member, and the knowledge of her affair with someone outside the community is uncomfortable for nearly all the other community members, particularly given her prominent position as internal secretary. Ohayon is also distracted by a possible romance with one of his colleagues.
Ohayon attempts to solve the case but is unable to make an arrest until Osnat reveals, posthumously, a clue that changes the trajectory of Ohayon's thinking. Before he can get to the suspect, though, there is another attempted murder, which nearly succeeds before Ohayon gets to the scene. Finally, despite his general lack of confidence in himself and his passive tactics, Ohayon makes an arrest and the kibbutz returns to its life of relative peace.
Though critics considered Murder on a Kibbutz
relatively slow and not as engaging as some other crime novels, it was lauded for its humorous and realistic portrayal of the kibbutz as an institution and the ways these communities have and have not changed since their inception in the early 1900s. The result is an interesting cultural mystery about the world inside the kibbutz, and the way that Israeli life has changed even deep in the deserts of the Negev.
Batya Gur was an Israeli author of primarily detective fiction. She was born in Tel Aviv and lived primarily in Israel, though she worked briefly as an instructor in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her parents were both Holocaust survivors. Over her lifetime, Gur wrote ten novels, five of which followed detective Michael Ohayon as he investigated the worlds of strange, insular communities that he struggled to understand. The Michael Ohayon novels include The Saturday Morning Murder
, Literary Murder
, Murder on a Kibbutz
, Bethlehem Road Murder
, and Murder in Jerusalem
. She also has a number of novels in Hebrew that have not yet been translated into English. Gur died of cancer at age fifty-seven.