Israeli Dov Alfon wins top British crime fiction award

Former Haaretz editor Alfon won an International Dagger on Thursday night for 'A Long Night in Paris'


Politically, Israel may be a toxic subject in Britain. But there is a huge appetite for Israeli culture — whether its food, arts, films, TV or, more recently, its novels. 

So it should be no surprise — except for the writer himself — that for the first time since the 1955 creation of the Crime Writers’ Association literary prizes, known as the Daggers, an Israeli has won one of the prestigious awards. 

Dov Alfon won the International Dagger is given to fiction newly published in a foreign language. 

Mr Alfon’s thriller, A Long Night in Paris, was first published in Israel in 2016 and was an immediate bestseller. It has been a roaring success in Britain, opening a window into an unknown world.

Mr Alfon is a former intelligence officer in the once-secret Unit 8200, on which the book is loosely based. Like his protagonist, Colonel Ze’ev Abadi, Mr Alfon was born in Paris but brought up in Tel Aviv. Unlike Abadi, however, Mr Alfon became editor-in-chief of the left-wing newspaper, Ha’aretz, but then left Israel for Paris, where he now lives, rediscovering the streets of his childhood.

As Mr Alfon acknowledges, many readers became emotionally invested in what happened next to the fictional Abadi and his sharp-witted female colleague, Lieutenant Oriana Talmor. “I was so busy since the book launched in the UK and Europe that I haven’t had time to write,” he said. The success of the book led to the Israeli company, Keshet, buying the TV rights — and the decision to make a six-to-eight episode series, with the door held open for a second season. This led to “more pressure to write a sequel”. Mr Alfon hopes to get started in 2020.

His book, he says, is an examination of Israel and of France. So Keshet wanted two writers, one French, one Israeli, to write the TV shows. Laughing, Mr Alfon said that he had declined to write the screenplays himself after an early meeting with Keshet, in which one of the producers wondered whether Colonel Abadi ought to have a sister for the TV, unlike in the novel. “Such discussions,” Mr Alfon says, “are not good for my health.” (Anxious readers can be reassured, there will not be an Abadi sister).

Mr Alfon wanted to make his fictional Unit 8200 as accurate as possible, without divulging secrets. “What I didn’t want was for the head of Mossad to throw the book aside and say the depiction was nothing like the real thing.”

Perhaps Mr Alfon’s favourite anecdote from the success of A Long Night In Paris was the phone conversation he had with his German translator. “He told me that the publisher was very nervous about how I had written the ways in which the junior Israeli military ranks spoke to their superiors. The publisher had asked him to double-check: do they really speak like that?” That such a response came from the German publisher pleased Mr Alfon a great deal.

Another Israeli, Lavie Tidhar, who had been on the Dagger short story shortlist (but did not win), has a shelf full of literary awards.

The kibbutz-born Mr Tidhar wrote on his website: “The Daggers are huge and this was a complete surprise! This is my first nomination for a crime fiction award, and a rare nomination for short fiction, so it’s a double hooray!”.

Mr Tidhar, 42, is currently based in London and but also lived and worked in South Africa, Laos and Vanuatu. He writes in English and since 2003 has won many awards for his short and long-form fiction. For the Daggers, Mr Tidhar was shortlisted for his short story, Bag Man, in a collection called The Outcast Hours, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin. 

Some of Mr Tidhar’s prize-winning novels have strong Jewish connections: Unholy Land is a detective story set in a world in which Israel had been founded in Uganda. A previous book, A Man Lies Dreaming, featured Hitler as a down-at-heel private eye in London, working for Jewish gangsters.

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