This year marks the 30th anniversary of Faye Kellerman’s introduction of beloved fictional characters Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, a homicide detective and an Orthodox Jewish teacher who fall in love and team up to solve crimes in the Los Angeles area.
“The Ritual Bath,” the first book in the series, introduces Rina Lazarus, a beautiful young widow raising two young boys on her own. She lives in a small apartment on the grounds of the local Yeshiva, where her husband had been a scholar, making a meager living by teaching math and maintaining the mikvah.
The wife of another teacher is brutally raped shortly after leaving the mikvah one evening, an event that traumatizes the entire small enclave.
Peter Decker, a red-headed homicide detective, is called to the scene. Decker is also trying to catch a serial rapist in another part of town and must consider whether the incidents are connected. It soon becomes clear that the rapist is targeting Rina.
As Rina tries to help Decker solve the case, the two realize that their feelings are growing, but Rina, and the disapproving community, feels that their religious differences would make a relationship impossible. Decker, however, reveals to the Yeshiva’s rabbi that although he was raised Christian by his adoptive parents, his biological parents were Jewish. “The Ritual Bath” leaves off with Peter making an attempt to connect with his Jewish roots.
Not only does Kellerman do a great job of framing the crime and keeping the readers in the dark until the end, she has created authentic characters in Rina and Peter. Rina is principled and stubborn; Peter is compassionate and equally stubborn.
The books tackle not only the crime du jour but also family and religious values. Kellerman weaves Jewish themes and situations into these mysteries:
“… how could she begin to explain the importance of the ritual bath — how integral it was to all of Judaism? The rainwater pool was the symbolic essence of Tahart Hamishpacha — family purity. Its waters were used to cleanse the dead spiritually, and immersion in it was essential before a non-Jew could be converted. Even cooking and eating utensils made of metal were dunked to render them clean. Mikvah was a mainstay of Jewish life — as much a part of Orthodoxy as dietary laws, circumcision, or the Sabbath.”
Jewish readers will delight in the sprinkling in of many Yiddish terms throughout the book. However, any sensitive readers need to know that the book contains a fair amount of raw language.
In “The Ritual Bath,” the enclosed yeshiva sets itself apart from the rest of the community, resulting in the Jews being misunderstood. The yeshiva grounds are known colloquially as Jewtown, and themes of anti-Semitism result in some cringe-worthy scenes. But the people within the community are very tightknit and try to protect one another.
Kellerman has found a way to make each book fresh and appealing and does not allow her characters to stagnate. Over the course of 30 years and almost two-dozen Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus books, the couple, and their relationship, has grown stronger, and the characters have experienced life changes. They’ve grown older, as have their children, they’ve moved, changed careers and had grandchildren. Kellerman’s many fans wait patiently each year for a new installment, just to check in to see what the beloved fictional couple is up to next.
“The Ritual Bath” garnered a lot of attention upon its release 30 years ago, earning the author the Macavity Award for the Best First Novel from the Mystery Readers of America.
Kellerman is married to the equally prolific author, Jonathan Kellerman, whose Alex Delaware series are hugely popular among mystery readers. The couple’s son, Jesse Kellerman, has written several mystery novels as well. But it is the Jewish framework that gives Faye Kellerman’s book series a unique flavor, though it is popular with readers of all faiths.
To date, Kellerman has written 23 novels in the series, the latest one having been released last October, as well as many standalone novels and short story collections.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.