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by Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2013
247 pages
ISBN: 1464200920

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The appearance of HOLY SMOKE, the second in Frederick Ramsay's Jerusalem Mystery series set in the holy Jewish city in the time of Christ, is particularly timely as both Christians and Jews prepare for their highest religious celebrations of the year. Ramsay delivers a wonderfully lively Jerusalem packed with characters from all over the Roman Empire whose interests and cultures clash and resound. The author's understanding of both the time and the place and his deep knowledge of the Biblical characters he imaginatively rounds out make this novel a treat.

The opening discovery of a dead man burned beyond recognition on the floor of the inner sanctuary of the Temple infuriates the high Priest Caiaphas and intrigues the Rabban of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel. Caiaphas snatches at the easy solution that a deluded man has entered where he was forbidden to go and has been struck down by the Lord for his effrontery. Gamaliel and the Greek physician Loukas are far from convinced and suspect an all-too-human murderer cleverer by far than they can at first fathom, and they begin the long, long task of pulling at threads of ideas to unravel what really happened and why. The "why" becomes the deepest mystery of all and stretches both Gamaliel and Loukas to the edge of their abilities.

The end games of the Jewish population of Israel, the royal family and its officials, the Temple hierarchy, and the cruel violence of the Romans form a never-ceasing and complicated tug of war that pervades every move everyone makes. Added to the mix are Ali, a secretive Parthian, and an assortment of Egyptians, local merchants, soldiers, and priests, making for a heady stew indeed. Gamaliel finds himself devising strategies to countermand Caiaphas' direct orders while manipulating Pontius Pilate into assisting him in tracking down the threatening men who follow and watch him and Loukas.

Structuring the novel is a lovely, nearly Hebraic sense of pairing that reminds the reader of the Psalms and the rhyming of ideas for emphasis or contrast. Two examples of the many Ramsay weaves in are the placing of the brilliant Gamaliel's intuitive guesswork against the incisive Loukas's carefully reasoned deductions and the foil of the physical blindness of the elderly former priest Jacob ben Aschi against the spiritual blindness of the High Priest Caiaphas.

If there is a weakness, it is in the plot that the reader is challenged both to understand and to accept as probable. This, however, does not detract from the excellence with which the setting and the characters is handled. Second in what is proposed as a three-book series, HOLY SMOKE is consistently intriguing and fun to read.

Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.

Reviewed by Diana Borse, February 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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