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Batya Gur, 57; Teacher, Novelist Introduced Detective Genre to Israel

June 01, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Batya Gur, an Israeli critic and teacher of Hebrew literature, who almost single-handedly brought the detective novel to her country, has died. She was 57.

Gur died of cancer May 19 in Jerusalem.

"It was out of perfectionism that I started writing mysteries," Gur told the Jerusalem Report in 1991. "I wanted to write a novel, but I was afraid of taking on something serious. The detective genre with its set conventions offered me protective coloring. I could look on it as fun."

Until Gur's novel "A Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case" appeared in 1988, nearly all mysteries published in Hebrew for Israeli readers were translations from other countries. Her books, which set off a spate of mystery writing by other Israeli authors, became Israeli bestsellers and were translated into several languages, including English.

When "Saturday Morning Murder" was published in the U.S. in 1992, it also became the first crime novel by an Israeli to reach a wide American readership. That seminal story and four others published in Hebrew and then translated into English for U.S. publication featured her protagonist detective, Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon of the Jerusalem police. Moroccan-born and Cambridge-educated, the brilliant, brooding and charming Ohayon lets his vulnerability show as he intuitively analyzes and philosophically solves his cases, set in closed, insular societies.

The novels, all published in America by HarperCollins, are "Literary Murder: A Critical Case" in 1993; "Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case" in 1994; "Murder Duet: A Musical Case" in 1999; and "Bethlehem Road Murder" in 2004.

Cerebral police procedurals, Gur's novels found immediate critical and commercial success in her native Israel and in the U.S. When her first Ohayon story hit U.S. shelves, Publishers Weekly noted: "A complex, fully satisfying resolution wraps up this masterful American debut."

Some Jewish publications in the U.S. faulted Gur's books for giving too much detail for Israeli readers and too little for foreign readers -- about kibbutz life, for example. But mainstream critics found no such flaws. A USA Today writer greeted Gur's "Murder on a Kibbutz" with: "Gur ... draws characters so flawed and human, who struggle so against their own pasts, that they're irresistible."

Gur wrote several other books in Hebrew, including a memoir, "From Starvation Road Left," about teaching in the Negev. An avid reader all her life, she wrote a weekly column for the newspaper Haaretz and contributed opinion articles to other newspapers, including The Times.

Born in Tel Aviv, Gur was educated in Hebrew literature at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and taught high school literature before she became an author.

She is survived by her husband, critic and scholar Ariel Hirschfeld; her mother; a brother; and three children from a previous marriage.

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