The Debba

Publisher: Other Press
Winner of the 2011 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel

In Middle East lore the Debba is a mythical Arab hyena that can turn into a man who lures Jewish children away from their families to teach them the language of the beasts. To the Arabs he is a heroic national symbol; to the Jews he is a terrorist. To David Starkman, “The Debba” is a controversial play, written by his father the war hero, and performed only once, in Haifa in 1946, causing a massive riot. By 1977, David is living in Canada, having renounced his Israeli citizenship and withdrawn from his family, haunted by persistent nightmares about his catastrophic turn as a military assassin for Israel. Upon learning of his father’s gruesome murder, he returns to his homeland for what he hopes will be the final time. Back in Israel, David discovers that his father's will demands he stage the play within forty-five days of his death, and though he is reluctant to comply, the authorities’ evident relief at his refusal convinces him he must persevere. With his father’s legacy on the line, David is forced to reimmerse himself in a life he thought he’d escaped for good.The heart-stopping climax shows that nothing in Israel is as it appears, and not only are the sins of the fathers revisited upon the sons, but so are their virtues—and the latter are more terrible still.  Disguised as a breathtaking thriller, Avner Mandelman’s novel reveals Israel’s double soul, its inherent paradoxes, and its taste for both art and violence. The riddle of the Debba—the myth, the play, and the novel— is nothing less than the tangled riddle of Israel itself.


It was in Toronto in 1977, seven years after I had last seen him, that I learned of my father’s murder. When the phone rang I half expected to hear Aunt Rina’s
voice, inviting me to the Passover seder. Instead I heard the line crackle and a
faint voice said, “Starkman? David Starkman?”
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1. How powerful are David's black dreams? Trace the various moments throughout the novel where they become more or less powerful. Do you think he can ever be completely rid of them?

2. What was Isser's motivation for writing "The Debba"? Why do you think he insisted David produce the play so soon after his death--...

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“In this fast-paced thriller, the philosophical wrestling matches the action blow for blow.”—Hadassah Magazine

“Sharp, biting prose distinguishes this first novel from Israeli author Mandelman… The author deftly blends a murder mystery with a nuanced examination of the intransigent Israeli-Arab conflict.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“An absorbing and captivating novel that bridges the uncomfortable political gap between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A first-rate debut novel that tackles current issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict while revealing the paradoxes of Israeli life for those who embrace the arts yet must deal with violence on a daily basis.” —Booklist, starred review

“…a literary thriller that powerfully confronts uncomfortable paradoxes around the founding of Israel. The issues it raises are as near as the headlines, and the novel seems likely to be as controversial as the play that forms its centerpiece.”—Library Journal