The Last Ember
By Daniel Levin | Riverhead | 432 pages; $25.95
In July, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ordered Israeli diplomats around the world to circulate photographs of the late mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, during his meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1941 as part of an effort to counter criticism of Jewish building in east Jerusalem.
Last month, video footage on Sky News showed work being done by Israeli archeologists in a 100-meter-long tunnel that leads from the City of David to the Temple Mount. Needless to say, the report sparked Palestinian indignation.
These two current events are intertwined eloquently in The Last Ember, a new novel by Daniel Levin and published by Riverhead Books.
Based on the image of the menora engraved on the Arch of Titus in Rome as it is being carried by exiled Jews following the destruction of the Temple, Levin takes his readers on a fascinating action-packed journey through tunnels beneath the Colosseum in Rome and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the hero of the novel is not a James Bond-like character. Jonathan Marcus, Levin's protagonist, is a young lawyer at an international law firm and a former doctoral student in the classics. Marcus joins forces with a passionate UN preservationist and together the two uncover a plot to destroy the menora that was started by the mufti of Jerusalem and continued by his grandson, a top Palestinian terrorist.
The book provides its readers with a crash course in Jewish and Roman history, mostly based on the writings of Flavius Josephus, a first-century historian. Levin is creative with the clues he creates for Marcus, such as cryptic inscriptions including a secret stenographic message on an ancient artifact and a tattoo on the belly of a perfectly preserved 2,000-year-old corpse.
Levin does a superb job of describing antiquity and gives his readers the feeling they are traversing the hidden caves and tunnels in Rome and Jerusalem together with the book's heroes and villains. Levin brings history alive with tales of flesh-eating eels in the Tiber River and exotic plants that grow under the Colosseum due to seeds - from around the world - that fell from the clothes of the ancient gladiators. While a page-turner and spellbinding thriller, The Last Ember does leave its readers with a thirst for more depth from the characters and particularly the relationship between Marcus and the fascinating preservationist, Dr. Emily Travia.
Levin also appears to know the issues well. A graduate of Harvard Law, Levin worked for some time at the New York law firm Debevoise and Plimpton practicing international law, later clerked at the Supreme Court in Israel and was also a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome.
In an era when new thrillers come out on a weekly basis, this book is definitely more than just another read, with its dazzling combination of revisionist history, archeology and politics, three issues that carry a great deal of weight in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. Rarely does a thriller touch upon such a sensitive and fascinating current event in this way.