Sacred and Profane highlights Orthodox Jewish religious practices.

Check out current lists of popular mystery novels, and you’ll find many written by authors whose first language isn’t English, or who don’t speak or write English at all. (I’m referring to those whose works are translated into English.) “International” detective stories and thrillers now crowd the bestseller lists as readers increasingly reach for novels that reflect unfamiliar cultures, languages, and settings. Scandinavian noir is only the most familiar example of this trend.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

But Chester Himes‘ Harlem Detective series proved early on that America also offers settings most readers would find exotic, too. So did Tony Hillerman‘s novels set in the Navajo Nation. And though Faye Kellerman‘s work is less well known than theirs, her Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series that highlight Orthodox Jewish religious practices richly deserves equal attention.

Sacred and Profane (Peter Decker & Rina Lazarus #2) by Faye Kellerman (1987) 431 pages ★★★★☆

Novels that highlight Orthodox Jewish religious practices

Most Americans, including a large number of American Jews, are unfamiliar with Orthodox religious practices and beliefs. In Sacred and Profane, and in its predecessor, The Ritual Bath, Kellerman brings those practices and beliefs into the spotlight. The picture she paints of an insular culture is compelling. And it doesn’t hurt that she writes well and has mastered the techniques of mystery and suspense fiction. Equally important, Kellerman demonstrates a deep understanding of human psychology; her portraits of Peter and Rina are unusually well developed. Both books are superior examples of the genre.

In The Ritual Bath, we met LAPD Detective Sergeant Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus as they come together around a brutal rape at an isolated Orthodox community called the Yeshiva Ohavei Torah. Rina is a widow, still in her twenties, with two young sons. Peter and Rina are both heavily involved in the investigation of the rape and subsequent events. The two fall in love despite their dramatic religious differences. But what they fear is that “marriage doesn’t reduce differences, it magnifies them.”

“Decker found faith hard to come by”

Now, in Sacred and Profane, set six months after the events in The Ritual Bath, Peter and Rina are struggling with those differences as their love deepens. Their relationship is “ambiguous. He and Rina were in love but not yet lovers.” To make it possible for them to marry, Peter has agreed to become a Torah Jew. He is studying Hebrew and the Jewish Bible with the Rosh Yeshiva (the head rabbi). Although he is learning quickly, Peter doesn’t fully share Rina’s and the rabbi’s faith. “Seeing life through the skewed eye of a cop, Decker found faith hard to come by.” And that doesn’t bode well for their future.

As Sacred and Profane opens, Peter is on a camping trip in the wilderness with Rina’s sons when the older boy stumbles across two charred skeletons. Thus begins an increasingly fraught investigation into the identity of two murdered young people—an investigation that will bring Peter into contact with the most extreme aspects of human depravity. What he finds will test his sanity and his relationship with the woman he loves.

About the author

Faye Kellerman has written thirty-three novels to date, including twenty-five in the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series. She holds a B.A. in mathematics and a D.D.S, although she has never practiced dentistry. Both her husband, Jonathan Kellerman, and two of her four children are successful mystery novelists. She comes by her knowledge of Orthodox Jewish religious practices honestly: the whole family is observant.

Previously, I reviewed the first of the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus novels, The Ritual Bath at An unusually strong start to the Faye Kellerman series of detective novels).

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