It is 28 CE, the time of the feast of Tabernacles. A servant girl is found in the baths of the palace of King Herod Antipas, her throat cut. Jerusalem is buzzing over the brutal death of a prophet, John, known familiarly as the Baptizer, and Prefect Pontius Pilate wants no more trouble. So he coerces Gamaliel, the chief rabbi and head of the Sanhedrin, into investigating the girl's death. Gamaliel is a Talmudic scholar, not a sleuth. But as he learns more of the dead girl's background and that of some key suspects, he begins to fit the evidence together. The entwined histories of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Herod the Great, Anthony, and Augustus Caesar suddenly gain relevance to affairs in Jerusalem. And all the while, an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth with his ragged band of enthusiasts and his habit of annoying Caiaphas, the High Priest, moves enigmatically in the background....
A first-century rabbinic leader, Rabban Gamaliel, serves as sleuth, perhaps a first for a historical, in Ramsey's superior second Jerusalem mystery (after 2007's Judas). When a woman is knifed to death in Herod Antipas's palace, Pontius Pilate taps Gamaliel, "a neutral, objective, third party," to investigate the crime. The rabbi, who believes himself completely unqualified to carry out Pilate's mandate, proves surprisingly adept as a detective, relying on a forensic examination of the corpse to provide clues to the killer's identity. Gamaliel is also a skilled interrogator, unwilling to settle for the obvious culprit, Menahem, the king's companion, whose knife was found at the crime scene. Ramsay, who wisely relegates the young, controversial Galilean preacher, Yeshua ben Yosef, to the background, convincingly portrays the religious and political schisms of the time. Whether Gamaliel can sustain a series remains to be seen, but for this book at least the author successfully suspends disbelief.