Years ago, when I was at the Seattle Potlatch in 1999, Ron Drummond earnestly recommended Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet to me, but my assiduous searches of used book stores across the States did not produce a single volume by Whittemore, and I rather forgot the name for a while. Then, a couple of months back, I came across a list of weird fiction compiled by Jeff Vandermeer which was topped by Whittemore’s Jerusalem Poker, and when I commented on this here, Patrick Nielsen Hayden told me that I really should read the whole quartet. Then, as luck would have it, Iain Emsley had all five of Whittemore’s novels (the Quartet plus Quin’s Shanghai Circus) in a new uniform edition from Old Earth Books on his table at the Liverpool Conference. So I bowed to the inevitable and snapped them up.
I’ve now finished the Quartet (Sinai Tapestry (1977), Jerusalem Poker (1978), Nile Shadows (1983) and Jericho Mosaic (1987)), and the first thing I must say is that those who recommended them were absolutely on the mark; the second thing is that this is not really a quartet. The four books do have fairly obvious structural and ideative similarities to Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet – I would be absolutely astounded if Whittemore was not very familiar with the earlier work – but the four books do not work together in the same way. The first two volumes are clearly linked, major characters are common to both, timelines overlap, and so on. The mood in these two works is light, with a penchant for the weird, the not-quite-explained, the almost-magical. Two of the leading characters in these books are leading characters in the third, but the setting has moved away from Jerusalem (this all takes place in Cairo during World War Two), the mood is altogether darker, and the sense of playing games with reality is mostly gone. The only link with the fourth volume is that two of the secondary characters in Nile Shadows are secondary characters also in Jericho Mosaic; but this work is altogether realist, and thoroughly downbeat in its mood, its tone, its impulse. They are all four excellent novels, and reading them together it is clear that they are the work of one man with a consistent, coherent vision who intends them to form a whole, but the truth is they do not.
Sinai Tapestry, among a host of other delights, includes a mad Balkan nobleman who becomes a monk in Sinai and discovers the original Bible, only to discover it consists of a series of scurrilous tales told by a blind wanderer and written up by a simple-minded amanuensis. So shocked is Skanderberg Wallenstein (in these early volumes Whittemore comes up with some wonderful names) by this discovery that he hides the original and spends years creating a perfect fake of the Bible we all know to justify our faith. This action, and the stories it generates, is the springboard for a richly idiosyncratic tale involving Plantagenet Strongbow, an English lord who writes a multi-volume history of sex and goes on to become a Moslem holyman; his son, Stern, a gun-runner who dreams of creating a homeland in the Middle East for all faiths; O’Sullivan Beare, an IRA man who escapes Ireland disguised as a nun and winds up in Jerusalem pretending to be a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade; and, my favourite character of all, Haj Haroun, a Jerusalem antiques dealer who may be 3,000 years old. Plot is idiosyncratic – though Whittemore’s description of the massacre of Greeks in Smyrna is a powerful piece of writing – this is a book all about the mix of characters.
Jerusalem Poker continues this character-driven lunacy with, as its central conceit, a 12-year poker game that goes on in the back room of Haj Haroun’s shop and which involves O’Sullivan Beare; Cairo Martyr, who controls the world supply of aphrodisiac mummy-dust; Munk Szondi, with an instinctive knowledge of the economic futures of the most unlikely products; and an ever-changing cast of unlikely supporting characters. The game eventually becomes a game for the control of Jerusalem itself, while the trio’s nemesis, Nubar Wallenstein (Skanderberg’s descendant), creates a fascist spy ring to try and take over.
Nile Shadows is altogether different. O’Sullivan Beare is called out of retirement as a Hopi indian medicine man in the American west to undertake a mission for British intelligence in wartime Cairo. The two warring branches of British intelligence are concerned by the actions of Beare’s old friend, Stern, who may be a double agent. Since the novel opens with the death of Stern, we know that the whole book is cast as a tragic dying fall full of somber colours and nighttime action.
Finally, in Jericho Mosaic, the sister of one of the men killed in the mayhem at the climax of Nile Shadows moves to Israel, and marries a young fighter for the Palmach who is killed in a battle. But in truth he is not killed, he has been recruited by Israeli intelligence and is planted as a long-term agent in Damascus, where he lives undercover for over 20 years providing a stream of valuable information. This story is based on the case of a real Israeli agent, and is a thoroughgoing examination of the workings of the intelligence service (Whittemore was ex-CIA) tied in with questions of personal loyalty and identity. It’s a stunningly good book, but apart from a couple of minor characters, it is hard to reconcile it with the world of Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker. Haj Haroun should still be there somewhere, a frail and deranged man wandering the alleyways in a rusty crusader helmet and yellow cloak, but he is as out of place in this world as the ruthless Lebanese militias would have been in Sinai Tapestry.
First published at Livejournal, 9 October 2004.