'Deadly Scrolls': A fatal encounter with history - review

Discovering a new Dead Sea Scroll wrapped in a messianic murder mystery.

 A FRAGMENT from the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Antiquities Authority laboratory in Jerusalem, 2020.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A FRAGMENT from the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Antiquities Authority laboratory in Jerusalem, 2020.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

“Set in modern Jerusalem and among the desert ruins of Qumran, this desperate hunt for an ancient treasure scroll pits a female Israeli intelligence agent against a religious fanatic hell-bent on bringing about the End of Days.”

Thus reads the publisher’s blurb about The Deadly Scrolls. It sounds like the recipe for a good thriller, and for the most part it is just that.

This is the first book in a planned series of Jerusalem-based mysteries penned by Ellen Frankel, retired editor-in-chief and CEO of The Jewish Publication Society. The author of 11 books, Frankel is new to the genre of adult fiction.

All the right ingredients

The story has all the right ingredients: a couple of murders, a harrowing car chase, guns and explosives, an unscrupulous Arab antiquities dealer, crazed Christian millennialists, Jewish messianists, hardboiled police officers and brave but flawed security agents, some professional rivalries, a romance, a plot to blow up the Temple Mount, and a search for the looted Second Temple treasures by using clues from a not yet found Dead Sea Scroll.

The site of the Qumran Scrolls, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls (credit: HADAR YAHAV)The site of the Qumran Scrolls, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls (credit: HADAR YAHAV)

Our lead character is a plucky young Israeli intelligence agent, Maya Rimon. She can’t kick her workaholic loner habits even when her ex-husband threatens to sue for full custody of their preschooler.

With copper curls to match the Copper Scroll – a genuine article from the Qumran caves that may have a parchment companion somewhere – Maya can’t get her boss to believe her hunch regarding a large-scale attack that may occur at the next Blood Moon, so her attempts to stop the impending catastrophe put her job in jeopardy.

She has an unlikely love interest, Hillel Stone, a Modern Orthodox Dead Sea Scrolls scholar whose eyes are described six times (yes, I counted) as “cornflower-blue.”

Even if this romantic thread falls a little flat, a more compelling storyline involves the tattooed, multiply pierced, purple-haired Cassandra Sucher, an American 20-something who is hired by unscrupulous actors – and kept against her will in an east Jerusalem apartment – to decipher stolen encrypted electronic files from a murdered professor’s laptop.

Then there’s the intriguing personality named Mariamne, discovered by Cassandra and later by Hillel in one of the decoded scrolls. A rare female voice from the past, her testimony could hold the key to what everyone has been looking for.

Here’s the introductory section of Mariamne’s scroll, which captivates both the decoder and the scholar:

“My name is Mariamne, daughter of Jonathan and Livia, both of blessed memory. I was born when Claudius still sat upon the throne of Rome. I spent my youth in Tiberias, a beautiful city on the harp-shaped Sea of Kinneret. Our family was once one of the great houses in Lower Galilee, selling precious minerals extracted and refined in our family’s mining works near the Salt Sea. But those days of glory are long past. Calamity has befallen my family as it has our nation. The Holy Temple lies in ruins, victim to Rome’s greed and lust for dominion. Thousands of our people lie on the ground, rotting fruit for the birds. Thousands more, bound by iron chains, have been carried off to foreign lands. The few of us who remain, scratch meager sustenance from unyielding soil. All that I have left is my story, which I now bequeath to those who come after me.”

Cassandra becomes personally engrossed in Mariamne’s story to the point of endangering her own life. Hillel, for his part, sees the academic value of the scroll: “Mariamne saw it all firsthand – the Galilean Wars, the Roman military campaigns, the Destruction of Jerusalem, the beginning of Jewish Exile. This scroll will revolutionize the field!” he tells Maya excitedly.

The Deadly Scrolls is a genuine page-turner and it’s obvious Frankel did her homework on the Dead Sea Scrolls. She said in a recent Jerusalem Post interview that she’s been to Israel 15 times but did not visit while working on this series over the past eight years, relying for her research on Google Earth and other online resources.

Considering this unfortunate fact, she did a creditable job placing her story in Israeli terrain – although readers who live here will notice some subtle and even blatant missteps, for example, her claim that one character’s drive from Efrat to Kibbutz Almog took “more than 10 hours.”

There are some oversights, too, such as a timeline of ancient Jewish history that includes the Babylonian conquest but not the destruction of the First Temple.

Overall, however, the book was a pleasure to read – in Frankel’s words, “a mystery packed with history” – and I look forward to the next volume in Frankel’s “Jerusalem Mysteries” series, due out in November.

The Deadly ScrollsBy Ellen FrankelPost Hill Press400 pages, $27