By: Lionel Davidson
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, New York
January 1996 (pb)
Harper & Row 1966 (hc)
Reading Lionel Davidson’s The Menorah Men in 2003 is almost
like climbing into a time machine and going back some 37 years or so—in
many ways, perhaps, a more comfortable time.
The premise of this mid-60s thriller is simple and rather elegant: A
fragment of a Dead Sea Scroll seems to offer a tantalizing clue to the
whereabouts of the golden menorah stolen from the temple in Jerusalem in
70 B.C. Archaeologist Caspar Laing, a bookish and decidedly unheroic
protagonist, begins a search for this most ancient of treasures—a search
that turns into a modern day Odyssey replete with spies, terrorists and a
beautiful young Israeli member of the Israel Defense Force.
Many aspects of this book made it a delight for me to read. Not the
least is Davidson’s wonderful craftsmanship as a writer. Two brief
examples, the first a bucolic description of the Ein Gedi kibbutz, and the
second a gut-wrenching narrative as Caspar clings desperately to the side
of a shear cliff face as he seeks the hiding place of the menorah (he
It’s a pretty little kibbutz, Ein Gedi, with its trim lawns, shade
trees and chalet-type buildings. Under the blue sky and wedged between
mountain and sea, the plantations of palm and catch crops looked like an
illustration in a child’s book. Just such a picture of primary-color
bliss the People of the Land must havecarried with them in their cold
northern exile; Paradise Lost indeed as viewed from the stinking ghettos
of Europe. (p. 227)
I shuffled sideways for a few minutes more, and stopped for a breather,
and incautiously looked down through my legs, and saw the gorge about two
miles below and nearly fell off. I leaned sickeningly in, head on the
rock, and felt it lurching and wheeling as I fought the sick horrors of
vertigo. I was stuck on the rock face like a fly on the wall. My knees
were trembling, delicate fly’s knees, and they’d give in a minute and
I’d drop, drop, drop…(pp.240-241).
I was also enchanted by what now seems a quaintness, an innocence, in
both plot and style. This is an Israel prior to the 1967 war; it is beset
by enemies, but they seem to play by some unwritten rules of civility.
There is sex in the story, but it’s a sort of almost-chaste, James Bond-ish
sex that doesn’t require graphic detail. There is intrigue and violence,
but again, Davidson does not rely on gruesome and graphic description to
catch and keep the reader’s attention. While the Cold War plays no overt
role in The Menorah Men, the novel is clearly anchored in that era
when the likes of Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre were at the height of
their powers within the spy/thriller genre.
This is an entertaining read that will take you back to a simpler time—and
the archaeology is pretty interesting, too!
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