****Death in Shangri-La

India, dawn, village

By Yigal Zur, translated by Sara Kitai – Israeli thriller writer Yigal Zur skillfully uses both an exotic setting and ongoing political turmoil to create a high level of tension in this fast-paced thriller. Published in Israel in 2012, Death in Shangri-La is the first of Zur’s novels to be translated into English, and quite smoothly at that.

A trip to India after their military commitment has become rite of passage for many Israeli young adults. When one young Israeli seems bent on abandoning a future law career and immersing himself in the life of an ashram somewhere in Sikkim, his father, arms dealer Willy Mizrachi, is outraged. He complains about it to his acquaintance, former security agent Dotan Naor, familiar with India from his days working for Israeli state security.

While Dotan counsels him to accept his son for who he is, Willy is determined to bring him home. In an action that will have deadly consequences, Willy wagers that within a year, he’ll have his son happily back home, with a wife and baby.

A few months later, Dotan learns Willy has been murdered in Delhi, just as news reports are filled with stories of terrorist attacks on Israeli young people in north India—backpackers, guest house visitors, honeymooners. Most of the novel is told by Dotan in first-person. However, the attacks are told from the points of view of the Israelis and their would-be rescuers, which effectively conveys the situational chaos.

Shortly after Dotan learns about Willy, security agency agents visit his Tel Aviv apartment hoping he will cooperate in unraveling Willy’s murder. Dotan at first refuses, but when a posthumous letter from Willy arrives saying he’s being watched, the clues it contains convince him to take the job. The female agent, Maya Kfir, will accompany him. (You anticipate where that relationship is going.)

The action moves to India, and Zur wonderfully evokes a sense of place. His descriptions of the street life, the seedy hotels where Dotan and Maya stay, the markets, the food, are terrific. The elements of the setting are not just pasted on, they are well worked into the plot. Could this story have taken place anywhere else? Probably not.

In the course of trying to untangle Willy’s death, Dotan and Maya land in the heart of the current terrorist trouble spot and must draw on Dotan’s contacts with Indians on both sides of the law. The Muslim terrorists, drug runners, Tibetan freedom fighters, the Indian army—all have their agendas and guns manufactured in Israel. Are they Willy’s deadly legacy?

The main part of the story takes place in a highly compressed few days and the propulsive action keeps the pages turning. My only complaint is Dotan—a man in his forties, not a teenage boy—is obsessed with the sexual conquest, past, present, or future, of practically every woman in the story. When he quickly develops a supposedly sincere, if highly predictable, relationship with Maya, it’s hard to take seriously. This is the middle one of three thrillers about Dotan Naor. I hope the others will be translated too, and soon!

Photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

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