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yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


Messianic murder

4 September 2006

Murderer in the Mikdash is much, much better-written than Left Behind. If you only buy one murder mystery set in the Jewish messianic era, you must buy this one.


Let me try that again.

If you want to write a novel that explores some society that your readers might not be familiar with, throw in a dead body. It’s a cheap trick, but it works: the reader’s primal motivation to see evil-doers brought to justice will keep them paying attention to the nuances of your world. Cases in point: The Caves of Steel, The Alienist, and Small Town.

Gidon Rothstein uses Murderer in the Mikdash to explore what life will be like for Jews in Israel in the Messianic era. The book follows the opinion that this era will not be characterized by overt and spectacular miracles, but merely (ha!) an end to other nations dominating Israel. Rothstein’s kingdom has a king (who never appears onstage and is hardly ever mentioned), a “Democrats Anonymous” for people still getting used to the new order, a Temple where priests perform sacrifices, and cities where manslaughterers can take refuge from their victims’ avengers. But it also has unhappy marriages, priests worried about the Temple’s financial solvency, corruption, racketeering, and, of course, murder. (Resurrection of the dead? Not yet, apparently.)

The book’s main character is an investigative reporter and a non-observant Jew, which gives the author an excuse to describe certain mitzvot, such as the cities of refuge, in some detail. Rothstein shows admirable restraint by only spelling out details of post-messianic society that are relevant to his plot, although I wish he’d found excuses to explain more. (How, for example—this is one of my wife’s pet peeves—will transit authorities change their ways to account for the laws of niddah?) By concentrating on the seamy side of post-messianic Israel, Rothstein prevents Murderer in the Mikdash from reading like a nineteenth-century utopian novel. The Israel he describes doesn’t look terribly attractive, until you compare it with the real Israel, the one with the Katyushas.

While portraying the Jewish messianic age in fiction is a new idea (at least, new to me), the book draws heavily on stock thriller elements: the investigative reporter, the villain whose minyansminions are everywhere, the incriminating document that everyone is looking for, and so forth. If Rothstein had managed to breathe a little more originality into his characters—to bring Rachel Tucker up to the level of Elijah Baley—I would be recommending this book to everyone, even those with no interest in the religious angle. As it is, I enjoyed the book, and I think it might do well as a movie for Israeli TV, but…well, if you like this kind of thing, it’s the kind of thing that you will like.