The Dead­ly Scrolls: Book 1 in The Jerusalem Mysteries

By – June 27, 2022

What could pos­si­bly bring togeth­er Israeli politi­cians, devout young Chris­tians, ardent Zion­ists, and Islam­ic ter­ror­ists? Vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing — except this com­pelling mys­tery nov­el, set in con­tem­po­rary Jerusalem, which depicts their clash as they crash and thrash through the sands of the Qum­ran desert in their fear-fueled pur­suit of an ancient trea­sure scroll.

Ellen Frankel deft­ly takes read­ers along on their des­per­ate jour­ney through the tan­gled his­to­ry of the holy city of Jerusalem, where hid­den secrets, gris­ly mur­ders, and omens abound.

Reli­gious delir­i­um per­vades this book; so does fem­i­nism. Major female char­ac­ters include police chief inspec­tor Sar­it Levine and Israeli intel­li­gence agent on assign­ment Maya Rimon; they dri­ve the hunt, push­ing against each oth­er and gain­ing ground by aggres­sive action.

Clev­er­ness abounds on both sides, enforced by phys­i­cal prowess, and the pro­tag­o­nists rely on their abun­dant wits in their attempts to out­smart a reli­gious extrem­ist, set on car­ry­ing out a ter­ror­ist attack in the holy city of Jerusalem. This bare­foot fanat­ic in a long gray robe claims to be the res­ur­rect­ed Christ, hop­ing to bring about the com­plete destruc­tion of the world by cre­at­ing the per­fect set­ting for the apoc­a­lypse, as described in the Book of Rev­e­la­tion in the Chris­t­ian Bible.

It is fit­ting that the book begins with a mur­der, set­ting the tone for the nov­el. An Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor, Boaz Gold­may­er, is found dead in his hotel room, sprawled on the white tiled floor of the bath­room. There is no blood, but he is sur­round­ed by a scat­ter­ing of papers. Per­haps the crime involves the recent theft of Jew­ish antiq­ui­ties; per­haps it is even con­nect­ed with the new­ly dis­cov­ered Dead Sea Scroll, the one whose text pur­port­ed­ly con­tains the secret hid­ing places of the lost trea­sures of the Sec­ond Temple.

Because the book is fic­tion, it is both sur­pris­ing and grat­i­fy­ing that it con­tains pages of fac­tu­al mate­r­i­al that broad­ly enhance the sto­ry. For exam­ple, read­ers ben­e­fit from a time­line of ancient Jew­ish his­to­ry at the front, which pro­vides con­text for the sto­ry; side-by-side maps of Israel in the first cen­tu­ry CE and Israel as it is today, in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry; and a full exe­ge­sis of the his­tor­i­cal peri­od, com­plete with data on the Hebrew, Yid­dish, Russ­ian, and Ara­bic words that dot the pages; plus, a use­ful a glos­sary of terms.

Frankel explains that the Cop­per Scroll at the cen­ter of the sto­ry is a real doc­u­ment, and that the dis­cov­ery of it and its con­tents as described in the book are ful­ly accu­rate. Inter­pre­ta­tions of it dif­fer among schol­ars, how­ev­er, and the author adds her own the­o­ries about its mean­ing through the char­ac­ters’ expres­sions. Fact is always sep­a­rat­ed from fic­tion, and every­thing that is fab­ri­cat­ed in the sto­ry is named and explained in the post­script, deep­en­ing the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the work.

Read­ers will sail through the book, the first of a planned series, turn­ing page after page with gus­to, fol­low­ing Maya Rimon in her quest. We are root­ing for her, but so much is against her that we can’t be sure. There are car crash­es, mys­te­ri­ous puz­zles, elec­tron­ic encryp­tions. She wins, then los­es, then wins again, pur­su­ing a kalei­do­scop­ic quest that shim­mers and sparkles from afar, yet draws the read­er toward the cli­max with each dan­ger­ous step Maya Rimon takes.

While The Dead­ly Scrolls con­nect the first cen­tu­ry with the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, the book addi­tion­al­ly explores a num­ber of con­tem­po­rary themes not usu­al­ly found in mys­tery thrillers, such as sin­gle moth­er­hood and com­pe­ti­tion between female agents. The nar­ra­tion explores many types of zealotry, such as polit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, and reli­gious zealotry.

Frankel is the author of ten books and three operas; The Dead­ly Scrolls demon­strates how she has suc­cess­ful­ly meld­ed her aca­d­e­m­ic exper­tise with her expe­ri­ence as a Jew­ish sto­ry­teller to segue into the field of mys­tery writ­ing. Future books in her series, The Jerusalem Mys­ter­ies, will be anx­ious­ly awaited.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ellen Frankel

1. Talk about Maya Rimon, the book’s pro­tag­o­nist. What do you admire about her? What do you fault her for? Do you wish she had end­ed up with Hil­lel Stone? Would you like to read anoth­er book in which she appears?

2. Dur­ing the course of the nov­el, Maya is informed about the his­tor­i­cal back­grounds to the sto­ry by both Hil­lel and by her research on the Inter­net. Did you enjoy learn­ing about a dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal peri­od as you read this mys­tery-thriller? Which part of that his­to­ry is now most vivid to you?

3. One of the cen­tral themes in the book is mes­sian­ism, the belief that an indi­vid­ual will appear to redeem the world and ush­er in a new phase of time. What does the
author see as the dan­ger of such belief?

4. A word that recurs through­out the book is zealotry” and its coun­ter­part, zeal.” How do you define zeal or zealotry? How does the book illus­trate its dangers?

5. In her post­script, Frankel points out some par­al­lels she finds between the first cen­tu­ry CE, Mariamne’s time, and the time of the nov­el, Maya’s time. Which of these par­al­lels occurred to while you were read­ing the novel?

6. Do you agree that this book has four detec­tives: Maya and Sar­it, Hil­lel and Cas­san­dra? What does it add to the book to have so many angles of approach to
the mystery?

7. Reflect fur­ther on the char­ac­ter, Cas­san­dra? Why does the author give her that name? Why do you think Cas­san­dra is so inspired by Mariamne?

8. Have you ever been to Jerusalem? Do you think that the expe­ri­ence of Jerusalem syn­drome” por­trayed in the nov­el is plau­si­ble? Talk about how the Jerusalem
land­scapes por­trayed in the nov­el con­tributed to your enjoy­ment of the book.

9. How did you use the glos­sary of for­eign words:

A.) While you were read­ing the novel?
B.) Pri­mar­i­ly after reading?
C.) Not at all. Did this mul­ti-lin­gual aspect of the book add to or detract from your appre­ci­a­tion of it?

10. Have you encoun­tered the abbre­vi­a­tions B.C.E. (“before the Com­mon Era”) and C.E. (“Com­mon Era”) before? Do you think you will use them in the future?