Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Last Secret of the Temple, by Paul Sussman ($14) (c2005)

Well, this was a nice surprise! The Last Secret of the Temple was touted as a Da Vinci Code-type adventure. There were some similar elements, including a mystical religious element, but that's not what the book was really about.

Paul Sussman -- an archaeologist, among other things -- talks about the cultures of the Middle East. He takes three characters: an Egyptian policeman; an dissolute, hair-trigger-tempered Israeli policeman; and an English-educated Palestinian journalist. He takes their separate storylines and brings them together as their quests overlap. In the process, he writes about Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian enclave near Jersusalem, and breathes life into the difficulties of how these cultures shakily co-exist.

It is the "uneasy" feeling that Yusuf Khalifa, the Egyptian police detective, has when the dead body of a long-time ex-German resident of Luxor turns up at a dig site. The dead man had an apocalyptic secret, it seems, but Khalifa cannot suss out what it might be. Khalifa suspects the latest death relates to a death many years ago of an Israeli Jew in Luxor. He had been assigned to the case at the time and a man was convicted of that murder, but Khalifa had always suspected that the suspect had been innocent. Now Khalifa has a chance to find out what really happened with that long-ago mystery. When he is abruptly pulled off the current murder, incredibly, Khalifa's way is smoothed over by his old boss, now retired and dying. In pursuing one of the leads, Khalifa must contact the Israeli detective, Arieh Ben-Roi.

Ben-Roi used to be a good policeman. Now he's a drunk who doesn't feel much, except a red-hot hatred for the Palestinians whose bomb killed his fiancee. When he is contacted by Khalifa, he is annoyed. But that part of him that used to be a good policeman is intrigued. Who was the Jewish woman killed many years ago in Luxor? What had she been doing there? As his investigation determines that there is indeed something fishy, he reluctantly enters into a wary partnership with Khalifa.

Layla al-Madani is a journalist with international credentials. Her background as a British-educated Palestinian gives her access to different political circles. She is sent a mysterious anonymous note. A friend de-codes the letter, and it leads her in the same direction as Khalifa and Ben-Roi: World War II and the Nazis.

What did a German archaeologist discover that the Nazis were so excited about, that they claimed could bring about the end of the Jewish state?

This is an intelligently written novel, more a story of international intrigue than mystic relic-hunting adventure. What the archaeolgist did or didn't discover has less to do with the story than the continuing cultural, political, and religious conflict among the Jews and Muslims. That part was fascinating, moving and very human. Sussman's background in Egyptian archaeology was evident in how academic -- but not in a dull way -- the historical descriptions were. This book was fast-moving and well done.

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