Heaven’s Witness – Joseph Telushkin & Allen Estrin – 2004
I cut my ‘eyeteeth’ on Agatha Christie mysteries. My parents had a huge collection, and I went through them all. Late high school or early college I found a copy of Harry Kemelman’s Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964) in my parent’s storage boxes, and after reading his initial Rabbi Small novel, I went in search of Saturday-Thursday, Someday, and One Fine Day. I enjoyed that they were solid, well-crafted mysteries, but the reader learned stuff about Judaism along the way. In 1992 I was pleasantly surprised with the release of The Day the Rabbi Resigned. (I actually thought that was the last Rabbi Small mystery until a few minutes ago, but The Day The Rabbi Left Town was published in 1996, two years before Kemelman passed away.) I’ve also read a handful of Margaret Truman and Martha Grimes. A couple years ago I discovered Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who has published several encyclopedic volumes of Jewish knowledge and philosophy, has also published a series of mysteries around a character named Rabbi Daniel Winter. I’ve read two of the three, and they are also well-crafted mysteries. When I saw he had published a separate mystery with Allen Estrin, I decided to give it a look.
The theme of the novel centers around reincarnation. An actress is having problems with her voice, and she asks a psychoanalyst to try to use hypnosis to cure her. While under hypnosis, it appears she regresses to a past life, to a teenager who was murdered several years before she was born. The details of the crime are eerily similar to some current murders, providing the psychoanalyst with some difficult decisions to make. I shouldn’t say too much more.
I was definitely hooked, and read through the novel quickly. The characters felt real, as I laughed and cried with them. There are definitely teary moments, as most of the victims are teenagers, and we are forced to watch the police notify the parents. There are also some happy-tear moments. Most of the character-threads are tied at the end, but a sequel would be possible. I felt at the end the body count may have been too high, but that’s my only negative.
The book doesn’t solve the issue of reincarnation. It’s a novel; it can’t. However, the characters aren’t even in 100% agreement at the end on what really happened. I liked that. There are references to Bridey Murphy, Charles Manson, and Guillain Barre. Only the first of which is reincarnation-related, but the other two were interesting to me. I had no idea Richard Nixon declared to the press pre-conviction that Manson was guilty, but apparently he did. Guillain-Barre is one character’s “favorite disease.” It’s not mine. (Or perhaps it is…depends on how one defines, ‘favorite.’)
The inside-back-cover mentions that Telushkin’s Rabbi Winter novels were the basis for several episodes of The Practice. Estrin is a screenwriter and producer and has collaborated with Telushkin apparently on episodes for The Practice, Boston Public and Touched by an Angel.
In 1976 Harry Kemelman’s novels were the basis of a short-lived series Lanigan’s Rabbi. It only lasted four episodes, but Art Carney played Chief of Police Lanigan. Rabbi Small was played by Stuart Margolin (aka Angel Martin from the Rockford Files). Robert Reed (aka Mike Brady) was in the cast, as well as Andrew Robinson — he is now known to legions of Star Trek fans as ‘Garak’, and he’s written one Trek novel.