Atlantic Monthly Press: New York
A little more than three years ago, I reviewed Paul Sussman’s initial thriller, The Lost Army of Cambyses, declaring that it was “…simply a terrific read,” and giving it a four-trowel rating. It was a classic of the genre, complete with dashing archaeologist hero, tough but vulnerable heroine, really bad guys, a search for treasure, and lots of slam-bang action. Sussman’s second novel, The Last Secret of the Temple, is even a better read, in my opinion, but it has a far different atmosphere to it.
Whereas Cambyses was all Saturday afternoon matinee, Last Secret is noir. Perhaps its setting—the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—makes this dark atmosphere inevitable. Combine that with the evil that was Nazism and its most deplorable obscenity, the Holocaust, and the reader must realize that this will be no light-hearted romp.
In his prologue, Sussman guides the reader through the last days before Jerusalem fell to Rome in 70 AD. David bar Judah, a young lad descended from the House of David, is entrusted to protect the greatest treasure held within the Second Temple, and his lineage is to continue to protect it until the signs are right for its reappearance. Then, in a second prologue, we are transported to Nazi Germany in 1944; a mysterious crate is being delivered by a doomed workgroup of concentration camp victims to Hitler’s redoubt in the mountains near Berchtesgaden.
The plot moves then to the present day, and we are re-introduced to a major protagonist from The Lost Army of Cambyses, the conscientious Inspector Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor, Egypt, police force. Khalifa, who aspired to a career in archaeology, but was forced to a career in law enforcement due to economic necessity, is re-directed from his holiday hike through the Valley of the Kings with his young son, to view the body of a man who has died under mysterious circumstances near one of the tombs. Following an initial investigation by Khalifa, it turns out that the victim, an aged hotelier named Piet Jansen, was a well-educated, cosmopolitan, collector of Egyptians artifacts of questionable provenience—and a rabid anti-Semite. When the autopsy of Jansen’s corpse indicates death by natural causes, Khalifa is drawn into the cipher that is Piet Jansen, because there are details to the Jansen case that bring back black memories for the Luxor policeman: the brutal murder fifteen years earlier of a Jewess, Hannah Schlegel. Not only was the murder a heinous crime, but Khalifa believes he was complicit in convicting an innocent man of the murder.
At the same time, hundreds of miles to the east in Jerusalem, two other individuals—Layla al-Madina, a Palestinian journalist of some repute (“truth-teller” to the Palestinians; “Jew-hater” to the Israelis) and Ari Ben-Roi, an embittered Israeli policeman, who hates all Arabs—are drawn into the web of conspiracy and danger that ultimately revolves about the murky figure that was Piet Jansen. Layla receives a mysterious letter, requesting her help in the writer making contact with the notorious Palestinian terrorist, al-Mulethan. Attached to the letter is a medieval encrypted document that supposedly opens the secret to a long-hidden treasure that can be used as a weapon against the Jews. Ben-Roi, much to his disgust, is drawn into the cold-case murder of Hannah Schlegel at Khalifa’s insistent requests. The plot moves on with a certain inexorable rhythm as Palestinian and Israeli terrorists seem to be vying for possession of this mysterious weapon; tensions between Palestinians and Israelis continue to escalate amidst terror attacks and counter-attacks; and Khalifa, Ben-Roi and Layla find themselves drawing ever closer as they try to stave off mass bloodshed and their own private demons.
The novel brings together disparate threads of history—ancient and modern—into a compelling tapestry. The hunt for the last secret of the Temple (could it really be a weapon?) takes protagonists and villains alike through time and space—from the days of ancient Rome to medieval France and ultimately to the lair of Adolf Hitler. It is a thrilling ride for the reader, but one that is tinged with dread, for the backdrop of the story—the on-going conflict in the Middle East—is very real and very deadly.
Four trowels for Paul Sussman’s second and very suspenseful novel.