Holy Smoke: A Jerusalem Mystery by Frederick Ramsay

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.


      • Book’s better than the film, which is decent enough despite many excesses, though the first section can be really hard going (especially if you’re not particularly up on your Latin …)


      • The book’s great (if initially hard going) making the distant past very real – it’s the film’s tendency to go way over-the-top I quibble with despite a decent cast and strong production values …


      • At the moment, “initially hard going” probably isn’t the best thing – my attention span seems to be a bit shorter than usual, so I’m sticking to what appear at least to be easy reads. Hence the dubious choice of another Paul Doherty for the next ‘Nother Chance November book – cause I really haven’t given him a fair crack of the whip, have I?


    • Don’t think Loukas is Luke, unless I’ve missed something. The character certainly doesn’t fit the character of a gospel writer (and I don’t think people are sure who “Luke” was anyway). As for the modern issue, I can’t say what it is without blowing the entire motive – but it’s nothing to do with religion.


      • Thanks. Any mention of a young rabbi-in-training called Saul, later to become the Apostle Paul, who mentions studying under Gamaliel? [Though Saul/Paul’s Pharasism was of the militant Shammaite variety rather than Gamaliel’s more accomodationist Hillel Pharasism, making the later Paul’s mention of Gamaliel a little puzzling.]

        Also, I’m wondering if there was really a “chief rabbi” then or if that is a later, post-Second Temple development. Though Gamaliel was certainly *a* chief rabbi.


      • You’re clearly better informed about the background than I am. Yes, Gamaliel does have a student called Saul from Tarsus, “a study in contradictions”. Just re-read his brief appearance, and yes, it’s obviously that Saul.And “chief rabbi” is a sort of translation used in the blurb – he is in fact Rabban of the Sanhedrin.

        The author’s notes make it clear that he really knows his stuff, so I doubt there are many mistakes…


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