In The Blood Libel (Great Plains Fiction, 265 pages, $19.95 paper), Allan Levine delivers something far more substantial than a murder mystery. The Winnipeg teacher, journalist, and author of three non-fiction books puts his Ph.D. in history to good use in this story of politics and prejudice.
The setting is Winnipeg's North End section in 1911, a rough, poor, disease-infested area with unpaved streets and no proper sewage system. It is the home primarily of immigrants, many of whom left their birth countries in order to escape persecution but have, ironically, brought their own biases and ancestral feuds with them.
These come into full view between the Polish and Jewish communities when a nine-year-old Polish girl named Anna Rudnicki is found murdered in such a way as to suggest that she was killed as part of a Hebrew blood ritual. The "blood libel"-so called because it is an untrue accusation, "a defamation and a misrepresentation of Hebrew religious customs"-becomes the central image in this expertly plotted, suspenseful story. When, based on nothing but circumstantial evidence, a prominent local rabbi is arrested for the crime, and a washed-up journalist fuels anti-Semitic feeling by penning sensationalized articles suggesting that "centuries of blood accusations were true", all hell breaks loose. On the night of Anna's funeral, the Polish community, goaded by the stories in the paper and their own deep-rooted prejudice, go on a mob rampage, destroying the property of their Jewish neighbours, defying the police, and exacerbating an already unstable situation.
Sam Klein, a "minder" at a local brothel, is the unlikely candidate recruited by the Jewish community to prove the rabbi innocent. As he unravels the tangled threads leading to the truth, he learns a lot more than he bargained for.
The Blood Libel is not about the death of one girl. It is about the irrationality of people who swallow propaganda without a second thought; who follow self-appointed leaders like sheep; who let old feuds govern their thinking; who don't question their own comfortable assumptions-in short, who allow history to repeat itself. And, as Levine makes eminently clear, such people can be found on any side of a dispute.
It is this fair, balanced perspective that distinguishes The Blood Libel and makes it the intelligent book that it is-without for a moment detracting from its intensity.