Irish crime and mystery writer Laurence O’Bryan almost gets the Holy City right.
Laurence O’Bryan came to Jerusalem in February 2012 as part of his research writing a sequel to his bestseller, The Istanbul Puzzle. “In Jerusalem you can go to hell or heaven in streets just wide enough for two handcarts to pass,” he wrote of his experiences. When The Jerusalem Puzzle was published in January, I was eager to see how the author portrayed the Holy City in his continuation of the suspense series.
“There was an ancient magic to this view,” protagonist Sean Ryan thinks to himself, when he overlooks the Old City walls for the first time. “There was history and religion in every glance, and something older overlaying it all. Countless wars had been fought over this patch of land and its fate was still in bitter dispute.”
Ryan had arrived in Jerusalem with his girlfriend, Isabel Sharp, after learning that prominent archaeologist Max Kaiser had been murdered. Colleague Dr. Susan Hunter, working on the translation of a mysterious ancient manuscript, was suddenly missing. Certainly Ryan and Sharp, who had discovered the manuscript buried beneath Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia church in the first book, would be able to discover who had killed Kaiser and where Hunter was being held. More importantly, they would be able to determine the meaning of the ancient texts. After all, that’s what suspense novels are all about.
The Jerusalem of O’Bryan’s novel is portrayed almost true to its spiritual self. Almost. In a pivotal scene, Isabel leaves the apartment where the couple is staying to buy some fresh bread in the neighborhood shop across the street. And if that store hadn’t yet received its bread delivery, surely she would find some next door. The only problem is that it’s the Sabbath day. Grocery stores and bakeries are closed in Jerusalem on Shabbat. Okay, so possibly we’re talking about an area in East Jerusalem. That could work, except for the fact that the narrative describes a Jewish Orthodox rabbi entering the store as well.
O’Bryan gets it right when Ryan and Sharp enter the Old City, where a lot of the action takes place. “The streets were narrow, intense with souvenir shops and small cafes. The pavement was stone slabs. Arches and canvas awnings blocked out the early morning sun.”
A particularly explosive scene takes place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “This is the holiest place in Christendom,” one of the characters shouts, to make sure that we get the message. Reading the action-filled lines, one can easily picture the church and its courtyard, complete with the Muslim custodian who safeguards the ancient iron key that locks the main entrance door.
On his visit to Jerusalem, O’Bryan was intensely moved by his visit to the church. “I found the interior of the Church beautiful and intriguing,” he wrote, “although the number of Christian denominations in control of the site leaves much to be desired … and illustrates the fractious nature of the descendants of those who follow Jesus.”
Overall, The Jerusalem Puzzle gives one a very strong sense of the uniqueness of Jerusalem. The book’s plot is very fast-paced, taking readers to a volatile Cairo still reeling from the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and to the contentious Palestinian territories near Hebron. There is a criminally-insane arch-villain, as well as a call-up of IDF reserves, narrow escapes, and dramatic rescues. But the puzzle of The Jerusalem Puzzle is not entirely revealed. That will have to wait until the next installment of the series, The Manhattan Puzzle.