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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Menorah Men by Lionel Davidson

February 1, 2003

St. Martin’s Paperbacks, New York
January 1996 (pb)
Harper & Row 1966 (hc)

Reading Lionel Davidson’s The Menorah Men in 2003 is almost like climbing into a time machine and going back some 37 years or so—in many ways, perhaps, a more comfortable time.

The premise of this mid-60s thriller is simple and rather elegant: A fragment of a Dead Sea Scroll seems to offer a tantalizing clue to the whereabouts of the golden menorah stolen from the temple in Jerusalem in 70 B.C. Archaeologist Caspar Laing, a bookish and decidedly unheroic protagonist, begins a search for this most ancient of treasures—a search that turns into a modern day Odyssey replete with spies, terrorists and a beautiful young Israeli member of the Israel Defense Force.

Many aspects of this book made it a delight for me to read. Not the least is Davidson’s wonderful craftsmanship as a writer. Two brief examples, the first a bucolic description of the Ein Gedi kibbutz, and the second a gut-wrenching narrative as Caspar clings desperately to the side of a shear cliff face as he seeks the hiding place of the menorah (he hopes).

It’s a pretty little kibbutz, Ein Gedi, with its trim lawns, shade trees and chalet-type buildings. Under the blue sky and wedged between mountain and sea, the plantations of palm and catch crops looked like an illustration in a child’s book. Just such a picture of primary-color bliss the People of the Land must havecarried with them in their cold northern exile; Paradise Lost indeed as viewed from the stinking ghettos of Europe. (p. 227)

And

I shuffled sideways for a few minutes more, and stopped for a breather, and incautiously looked down through my legs, and saw the gorge about two miles below and nearly fell off. I leaned sickeningly in, head on the rock, and felt it lurching and wheeling as I fought the sick horrors of vertigo. I was stuck on the rock face like a fly on the wall. My knees were trembling, delicate fly’s knees, and they’d give in a minute and I’d drop, drop, drop…(pp.240-241).

I was also enchanted by what now seems a quaintness, an innocence, in both plot and style. This is an Israel prior to the 1967 war; it is beset by enemies, but they seem to play by some unwritten rules of civility. There is sex in the story, but it’s a sort of almost-chaste, James Bond-ish sex that doesn’t require graphic detail. There is intrigue and violence, but again, Davidson does not rely on gruesome and graphic description to catch and keep the reader’s attention. While the Cold War plays no overt role in The Menorah Men, the novel is clearly anchored in that era when the likes of Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre were at the height of their powers within the spy/thriller genre.

This is an entertaining read that will take you back to a simpler time—and the archaeology is pretty interesting, too!