The Last Commission
Inkwater Press, 2014
Eytan Halaban has a knack for craving out and presenting to readers characters with a quiet, steely core that frequently go unappreciated by their peers. We definitely saw this in The Vermeer Conspiracy with Sabrina Gutierrez, who was able to use the underestimation and bigotry of others to her advantage. In The Last Commission we move away from our contemporary time to the near past, the late mid-1970s. Here we slink in alongside Maury Green in Halaban’s preferred backdrop of New Haven, Connecticut.
In this glimpse into the past, we enter into the internal life of Israeli war veteran and how lack lustre rental agent Maury Green as he tries to navigate his way through some brazenly bigoted housing practices to carve out a modicum of dignity. Green both needs to work and doesn’t. His time fighting for Israel provides him the pension he needs to live but it doesn’t give him purpose. And, as we see, his rental agent job is just a series of casual insults by superiors and co-workers too ignorant and self-absorbed to even get a whiff of the kind of war trauma Green experienced in World War II (liberating Dachau) and in the war of Israeli independence.
Green is a husk of a man. Halaban doesn’t so much write Green as suffering PTSD, but rather of having endured soul-crushing terror at the hands of enemies and allies. In this novel, no one cares for anyone. The tone set comes from Green’s point of view and as such leads us down that path. So when Green’s path crosses with would-be prime minister General Yaacov Ronen (and not for the first time), a scheme unfolds wherein Green will be able to rectify his situation and soul. Make no mistake, this isn’t a novel about revenge or getting one over on elites, though one could definitely read as so. Rather, Halaban gives us a story about a fundamentally kind man who only needs an opportunity to act for the well-being of others in a historical move.
That historic move is the saving of ancient Hebrew scrolls off of which Ronen is looking to profit. But that is really a kind of premise that allows Halaban to craft a crime thriller with some wonderful noir aspects of a down-and-out orthodox Jew striving to do the right thing. Halaban has a gift for crafting quick, satisfying thrillers avoiding the hollowness in most of the genre’s tropes. The first third of the novel warms readers to the plot and then the rest moves at a steady clip not just checking boxes but offering up engaging, believable twists. Halaban’s characters always earn their heroism. Seeing Green shirk off the husk of a man he’s become for a grander persona that is more true to himself is not just uplifting but eminently satisfying.