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A Strange Death: A Story Originating in Espionage, Betrayal, and Vengeance in a Village in Old Palestine Hardcover – May 31, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This promises to be about a mystery relating to a pro-British spy ring in WWI Palestine; in the end it delivers both more and less. Halkin, who delightfully explored another historical mystery in Across the Sabbath River, looks at the dramatic early history of Zichron Ya'akov, one of the first Zionist settlements in Palestine. During WWI, Yosef Lishansky and Sarah Aaronsohn, young locals who favored the British over the ruling Ottomans, led the spy ring, called Nili, bringing internecine conflict and Ottoman retribution to the town. Caught by the Turks, Aaronsohn was tortured and committed suicide; Lishansky was hanged. This much is generally known. But Halkin, poking around local ruins and interviewing old-timers after moving to Zichron in the early '70s, pursues two linked mysteries: was Nili betrayed by a Zichron resident, Perl Appelbaum, and was Appelbaum in turn poisoned in revenge? In exploring these questions, Halkin vividly portrays the Nili protagonists, the rough life in early Zichron, ideological divisions among various Zionist groups, the easy relations between settlers and native Arabs, and the buried secrets and passions of an average town. But the tale gets hijacked by one of Halkin's main sources, whose dramatic but digressive—and, it turns out, heavily fabricated—accounts of his own youth in Zichron detract from the narrative's momentum and coherence. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The community of Zichron Ya'akov is located in the southern foothills of the Carmel Mountains near Haifa. Today, this picturesque village is a tourist attraction for both Israelis and foreigners, but in 1917 this Zionist settlement was at the heart of an enduring espionage mystery that still haunts its inhabitants. Halkin is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and has lived in Zichron Ya'akov since 1970. During World War I, the settlement sheltered a spy ring that passed information to the British about Ottoman military capabilities and maneuvers. The ring was uncovered; the Turks executed two members, and a third committed suicide to avoid torture. Who betrayed them and why? What happened to the supposed informants? In probing the mystery, Halkin uses the tools of an expert novelist and a skilled investigative journalist. His narrative moves smoothly back and forth in time, from pre-Mandate Palestine to contemporary Israel. His book is both a tale of intrigue and a sociological survey of the evolution of a small community over nine decades. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 388 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (May 31, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586482718
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586482718
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,543,278 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

An author, journalist, and internationally renowned, awarding-winning translator, Hillel Halkin has translated several novels from Hebrew into English.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 23 people found the following review helpful By TamarDC on October 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book was a huge disappointment to me. Like many other Israelis I grew up with the story of "Nili" (there was a wonderful children's book about the secret organization that we all were assigned to read at school in the seventies). When I heard that a new book had been published about Nili, one that promised to uncover mysteries about the organization, I ran to order it.

What a flop. This book reads like a combination of a not-funny "Toujours Provence" and a very confusing "A Thousand and One Nights."

The book is divided between two subjects. On the one hand, are the author's memories of his life in Zichron in the seventies. The memories are neither interesting nor illustrative. I've been to Zichron a number of times and yet I had a hard time garnering any kind of mental image of the place based on Halkin's book. It's just a collection of disjointed impressions with very little meat and no connecting threads.

More irritating are the significant sections of the book devoted to Nili. In the first place, there are a lot of people mentioned; and it's like a shtetl story - "the aunt of the sister of the brother-in-law" - practically impossible to wade through the people mentioned without a card index. A couple of genealogical tables would have been hugely helpful.

Second, the many anecdotes do not really connect to each other. Some are pertinent to the story and some aren't. I knew the history of the case pretty well before starting the book and I had the hardest time "connecting the dots." The author doesn't really resolve any important mysteries, in my opinion--he just confused the hapless reader. I cannot imagine being able to make any sense of the situation had I not already known so much about the case.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Grey Wolffe VINE VOICE on December 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This story is not about the rhetorical question stated in the title as it would relate to a person, but is more as it relates to a time and era. The town of Zichron Ya'acov (memory of jacob) was named for Edmond de Rothschild who wanted to help settle pre-WWI Palestine with jewish farmers from Eastern Europe. They would grow their own food and be self-sufficient towns, but land would be personal property and not communal (like on a kibbutz).

During WWI a group of settlers in the town decided to help the British in the fight against the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire. They were known as NILI and are very much a part of Israeli history and lore, as Nathan Hale is to americans. The mystery of the story is that of four woman who celebrated when the NILI were taken by the Turks, they all had strange deaths, and maybe more than one of them was murdered.

Halkin's tale is more about the birth of Israel and the trials and deaths suffered under both the Turks and the British Mandate. It relates, on a first person basis, how Jews and Arabs viewed each other prior to WWII and how tensions grew as more and more Jews poored into Palestine in the 1930s. Lastly the story is about how little towns like Zichron have been turned into tourist meccas that have no relationship to the original towns. They're like 42nd Street after it's been cleaned up by Disney.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Hillel Halkin’s A Strange Death defies genre definition. As a sworn history semi-professional or more, as a lover of mysteries, and an envious admirer of outstanding writing, I urge everyone to read this marvelous enchanting book. Its unstrained cadences of nature description, psychological insight and socio-historical roles played by real individuals, with their multiple personae and deep secrets create a reality tangible and true.
This is a book for all, and particularly for readers who can recognize and admire brilliant style and fascinating plotting of everyday lives in a turmoil of times crossed by the flux of history and the love-hate of neighbors.
Avraham Avi-hai, Author of A Tale of Two Avrahams
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