Booked and Printed
Robert C. Hahn
The private investigator may be a relatively new invention, but murder is not. In ancient times the need to solve the crime was often beyond the capabilities or incentives of officials. The three authors reviewed here combine vivid historical settings and fecund imaginations to provide captivating interpretations of often shadowy historical persons. Their sleuths include a rabbi in Jerusalem when it was under the Roman yoke, a provincial Roman governor in Bithynia in the early years of the second century A.D., and a very young scribe unexpectedly raised to a lofty position by an Egyptian pharaoh. All three authors share another pair of characteristics—expertise and a willingness to do research to bring their ancient setting to life.
In The Eighth Veil (2012), Frederick Ramsay introduced Rabban Gamaliel, chief rabbi (Rabbi of Rabbis) and head of the Sanhedrin. In the newest outing of this series, Holy Smoke: A Jerusalem Mystery (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95 hard cover; $14.95 trade paper), the philosophical rabbi investigates a murder that brings him into conflict with both the High Priest Caiaphas and Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.
Harsh Roman rule controls much of the life in Jerusalem in 29 C.E., but Jews are still permitted their temple and worship. Nothing is as sacred as the Temple’s Holy of Holies, which is entered only rarely and under specific conditions and only by the High Priest. Thus the discovery of a body there is, to say the least, a defilement of the sacred space—upsetting, insulting, and truly catastrophic.
Gamaliel is quick to send for his friend Loukas, a Greek and a renowned healer who had aided him before, and together they manage to extricate the body and remove it from the Temple. For Caiaphas the simplest explanation is that someone was foolish enough to enter the Holy of Holies and was struck down for his foolishness. But Loukas convinces Gamaliel that a murder has occurred and that if Gamaliel accepts Caiaphas’s explanation he will allow a murderer to go free.
Proceeding from the assumption that the body was placed in the Holy of Holies, it follows that the killer must have had familiarity with Temple routines, and that one or more Temple guards must have been involved or suborned. The latter assumption appears to be supported when two of the guards fail to report for work the following day.
Gamaliel manages to locate the missing guards and to learn the identity of the victim, a task made easier by the clever deductions made by Loukas when he examines the body.
Meanwhile a mysterious Assyrian physician, Ali bin Selah, who trades with Loukas, possesses a powerful pain reliever made from poppy sap from the plant called hul gil—the joy plant. Selah lurks in the background, both as a watcher and someone who is being watched by others.
However, Caiaphas wants Gamaliel to focus his investigation on an entirely different matter, that of a “rabble rouser” named Yeshua who is spouting nonsense like “the kingdom of the Lord is like a mustard seed,” and breaking Shabbat law by healing a cripple on Shabbat. Caiaphas is unable to get this rabble rouser to desist.
Even when summoned by Pontius Pilate who chides him for ignoring the dangerous “renegade rabbi” and instead interfering in an affair the authorities wish him to avoid, Gamaliel persists and even convinces Pilate to grant him some leeway.
Ramsay’s delightful sleuthing duo trade ideas and insights as they unravel a killing that is complex in both method and motivation. The vivid historical setting promises to get even more intriguing in future novels. Ramsay is also the author of “Judas: The Gospel of Betrayal,” as well as the fine contemporary series featuring small-town Virginia sheriff, Ike Schwartz.
Bruce Macbain made his debut with 2010’s Roman Games and continues a planned trilogy with The Bull Slayer: A Plinius Secundus Mystery (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95 hardcover, $14.95 trade paper), which finds Pliny taking up his new post as Governor of the troublesome province of Bithynia-Pontus (a part of modern Turkey) in approximately A.D. 109 or 110. Among his entourage are his much younger wife Calpurnia and the historian Suetonius, a witty and learned goad and foil for Pliny.
Bithynia-Pontus is described as “the most
corrupt, mismanaged, seditious, and turbulent province in the Empire,” and Pliny is given
overriding authority to clean it up. It doesn’t help that he and Calpurnia are considered outsiders not only by the “Greeklings” who make up the majority of the population but also by the established merchants and officials who form the city’s hierarchy—people such as Marcus Balbus, the Fiscal Procurator, and his wife Fabia, or the wealthy provincial Diocles, known as the Golden Mouth for his oratory skills.
After dealing with the effects of an earthquake, Pliny sets off on a tour of the province only to be recalled when Balbus disappears. He returns to conduct interviews with Fabia and with Balbus’s chief accountant, Silvanus. As Pliny attempts to sort out the tangle of relationships and alliances that have made Bithynia the “graveyard of governors,” he encounters a secretive religious cult worshiping Mithras, a charismatic fortune-teller named Pancrates, a wealthy brothel owner named Sophronia, and a handsome young Greek called Agathon, who charms Calpurnia.
Macbain, with degrees in Classics and Ancient History, offers both an intriguing murder mystery and a vivid portrait of daily life in a polyglot city where the ruling authority must impose the will of a distant Emperor as much by diplomacy as by force.
Australian author Kerry Greenwood, best known for her series featuring Phryne Fisher in 1920’s Melbourne, jumps way back in time to Ancient Egypt (roughly 1450 B.C.) in her new novel Out of the Black Land (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95 hardcover; $14.95 trade paper). The novel is perhaps closer to historical fiction than mystery, with lots of intrigue but little sleuthing, as her story ranges from the last years of Pharaoh Amenhotep III to the ascension of his son Akhnamen (later known as Akhenaten) and his abrupt attempt to deny worship of any deity other than Aten—the one God.
This tumultuous period in Egyptian history is recounted through the eyes of three characters whose fortunes ebb and flow in unpredictable fashion. Ptah-Hotep is a young scribe plucked from his studies by Akhenaten and elevated to the lofty position of Great Royal Scribe. Ptah-Hotep’s lover Kheperren, another young scribe, is assigned to accompany General Horemheb and against the odds becomes an outstanding soldier as well as scribe. Princess Mutnodjme, a younger sister of Nefertiti, has a great desire for learning and becomes a priestess of Isis.
Amenhotep’s palace is filled with powerful figures and enough intrigue that fortunes and lives can be won or lost very quickly; only the very skillful or the very lucky survive. But his reign is merely prelude to an endless series of crises that befall Egypt when his strange son Akhenaten succeeds the aging Pharaoh and embarks on a disastrous course that includes lavish festivals, the banning of all gods except the sun god Aten, the creation of Amarna, an entirely new and elaborate city, and the weakening of Egypt’s military readiness.
As attested by the lengthy Afterword subtitled “On the State of Egyptology” and by a lengthy bibliography of sources, Greenwood did extensive research for this novel. Still, there are more unknowns than knowns about this period of history, and Greenwood infuses her novel with her own interpretations of many customs and events. It marks an interesting departure for the Aussie author and an enjoyable read for fans of historical fiction.
All Points Bulletin: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has released a second digital anthology. The Crooked Road Volume 2: Ellery Queen Presents Stories of Grifters, Gangsters, Hit Men, and Other Career Crooks, featuring stories by Doug Allyn, Dana Cameron, S. J. Rozan, Janice Law, and more, is now available for e-readers. • Launching in March 2013, Plan B Magazine is a new electronic periodical, publishing a new short crime or mystery story on a biweekly basis (see www.plan-b-maga zine.com). • Representatives from AHMM will be appearing for the second annual time at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival (see www.brook lynbookfestival.org).