“Death in Shangri-La” is the first book in a series of thrillers by Israeli author Yigal Zur. With the novel’s recent translation, Zur introduces English-speaking audiences to Dotan Naor, a jet-setting hunk of a private investigator in the vein of James Bond or Jason Bourne. Unlike these dour, sullen G-men archetypes however, Naor is imbued by the author with a wry sense of humor and a New Age aesthetic exhibited by a yoga routine, a taste for smoothies and a flowy “athleisure” wardrobe.
At the outset of the story Naor is summoned by his old friend Willy Mizrahi, an unscrupulous arms dealer who seems equally comfortable operating in the regulated and illicit markets. Mizrachi explains that after completing his mandatory term in the military, his son Itiel embarked on a backpacking trip across South Asia – a common coming-of-age tradition among Israelis after being discharged from the armed services.
While in India, however, it seems Itiel became enchanted by Buddhism and eastern philosophy and decides to pursue the goal of becoming a monk. In their last correspondence, Itiel tells his father of his plans to join a remote monastery in the Himalayas. Mizrachi reaches out to solicit help from Naor who has vast experience fetching Israeli tourists out of trouble and a seemingly comprehensive grasp of the geography of India. Despite his confidence that Itiel has simply “shacked up” with a woman and perhaps even had a child, Mizrachi still asks Naor to track him down.
It quickly becomes clear that Itiel’s disappearance is not merely a case of a wayward youth yearning for adventure, but is in fact part of a series of events much larger and geopolitically complicated than anyone realizes. Grizzly murders and violent acts of terror soon shake the subcontinent threatening to turn what was once a serene earthly paradise into a “no-go zone” for Israeli ex-commandos and international tourists alike.
Zur succeeds at crafting a compelling narrative with complex themes and memorable, if sometimes one-dimensional, characters. Clearly an Indophile himself, Zur has produced a unique spy novel replete with Indian cultural touchstones and steeped in eastern philosophy. While at some turns the story is hampered by mediocre dialogue and tired genre cliches, the plot is sufficiently riveting as to appeal to fans of Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy. Where Zur truly shines is in setting the scene of this exciting tale. His intimate familiarity with every slum and back alley in Delhi gives the novel a rich and worldly flavor.
When asked about the life experiences which made him interested in writing international spy thrillers, Zur spoke of his time in the Golan Heights fighting with the IDF during the Yom Kippur War. “I think that this was one of the pivotal moments in my life as it influenced my decision to become a writer and not an officer like my dad and my younger brother,” he said. “I had to heal my trauma through years of traveling, which opened the world and its mysteries and wonders to me. I started writing short stories based on my personal wanderings as well as my wartime experience in the Golan.”
“I was often asked to participate in rescue missions for young Israelis who became lost or disappeared, mostly in India, Nepal, Africa and South America,” he explained. “I traveled to Oman and other Arab countries closed off to Israelis. I crossed over from Thailand to Burma to interview the drug lord Kun Sa, and I flew to Colombia to cover a kidnapping. The best moment was when I became the only Israeli embedded with the American forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.”
Zur’s deep knowledge of both the physical terrain and cultural landscape of India makes the reader feel as if he or she has stepped off the plane and onto an adventure from the first paragraph. It is a riveting page-turner of breathtaking scope, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone craving an adventure novel with a rich and diverse setting.
PERRY FEIN IS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR AND WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.