29 CE, Jerusalem. The Holy of Holies in the Temple is a place that no man may enter, save for the High Priest, and even then on the rarest of occasions. But when a corpse is found in that sacred place, badly burned, the High Priest is certain that whoever he was, the blasphemer has been struck down by an angry God. Rabban Gamaliel, the chief rabbi, is less sure, and sets out, with the assistance of his friend, the physician Loukas, to find the truth, no matter what it may be. But it seems that the truth is more far-reaching than anyone could have guessed.
Frederick Ramsay has written a fair few mystery novels – eight featuring Ike Schwartz, an ex-CIA man – but my eye was caught by this one, the second in a series of “Jerusalem Mysteries”. Fascinated as I am by historical mysteries, this one is set in the earliest time period that I have read about and I was curious as to how the writer would pull off a trick of making a culture with so many fundamental differences to ours come alive. What I found surprised me in a number of ways.
Ramsay does a wonderful job in bringing the city and its people to life, and, while the people he writes about are genuine characters that you can relate to, he never forgets that they come from a different mindset. For example, there is a genuine belief from a number of characters that the body in the Temple must have been struck down by God – indeed, even our intrepid sleuth considers this as a possibility. The belief in the angry God of the Old Testament is strong amongst the people of Jerusalem as is the fear of being to one to make him angry. Similarly, the almost acceptance of the Roman occupation is a fascinating one. When faced with a vague possibility of something that may irk the Romans, Gamaliel makes an interesting choice – not the one that some swashbuckling heroes might make – but a sensible one that fits with his character.
So, on to the mystery, and this book is the closest thing I’ve read in a long time to almost defy categorisation. While there is a whodunnit at the heart of the book, it’s not the point of the story and, I have to say, if that is the only aspect of the book that appeals to you, you may well be disappointed with it. I suppose the thing that it most reminds me of is a Sherlock Holmes story – although this Holmes does discuss things more with his Watson than the real one – in the sense that it’s really more of an intellectual adventure than a play-along-at-home mystery, the plot slowly unfolding and unfolding until things have blossomed into something quite surprising. I’m not completely convinced by the overall picture – there is a deliberate attempt to make a parallel with a modern day issue which seemed a little forced – but the story certainly keeps moving forward.
Overall, I’d recommend this to the fans of the historical novel, as the picture of Jerusalem and it’s people (and yes, there is mention of a certain person, although he doesn’t appear – Pilate does, though) is something rather special. I’d like to see the author try a smaller scale plot in the next book (or even in the first one, as I haven’t read that) as this one threatened to lose me on a few occasions. Definitely worth a look.
This review copy was provided to me by Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley. The book will be available to buy from February 2013.