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Historical Mysteries

The Widow of Jerusalem, Alan Gordon, St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.

(out of print, check for used copies at our ABE store).

Surprisingly, the detective that popped into my head as I read The Widow of Jerusalem was not Brother Cadfael but Patricia Wentworth's venerable Miss Silver. Like Gordon's character, the Jester Theopolis, Miss Silver is incognito. A sweet little old lady who knits is remarked by no-one, and yet she observes all. A Jester who entertains is seen as foolish and harmless, and yet he, too, sees all. Like Miss Silver, who moves about the great country houses of England with remarkable ease, Theopolis flits all over the continent, in this novel to two primary cities, Tyre and Acre. If I had one bone to pick with this book, it's not with the author, but with the publisher - this story cries out for a map. While (hopefully) all of us are well aware of Jerusalem's location, I personally cannot say the same for Tyre, and while the picture Gordon paints of it for the reader is compelling and vivid, I still wanted to know just where it was.

While this story is set in 1191, the swirl of forces surrounding Jerusalem and the Middle East couldn't feel more contemporary. A broad mix of Crusaders and Princes seek to control Jerusalem, all with different motives, ranging from religion to simple greed. The "widow" of the title is, as the book opens, the Queen of Jerusalem, whose husband does not bear the title of King of Jerusalem, though he seeks it. And they live not in Jerusalem, but in the walled city of Tyre, surrounded by a tent city of refugees, spies, killers, and fools in training. All of these are refused entry to the actual city; Theopolis and his mentor, Scarlet, can come and go as they please between the two, however, and manage to discover quite a lot in this manner.

Theopolis is recounting this story to his wife, Portia, as they travel after the birth of their daughter, and it's really the story of the dwarf, Scarlet, the Queen's Fool. Scarlet is devoted to Queen Isabelle, and she's a great beauty, though melancholy. As events merge around her and many try to take over her kingdom, Theo and Scarlet are hard at work behind the scenes, trying to solve a murder or two, and in general trying to keep the peace.

This is a clever mystery written to make sense of actual facts (Scarlet and Isabelle did exist), and for me the real strength of the novel was the portrayal of Scarlet, who comes vividly alive as a loyal, complex, troubled and ultimately valiant man. The ending had me in tears. I found this book to be perhaps Gordon's most memorable, simply because of Scarlet; and this author continues to bring an era to life that is perhaps unknown to many of his readers.

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