I’ve been thinking about doing a series about various pop culture stuff that are, in my mind, under- or even totally unappreciated. These can be works that are critically acclaimed but deserve to be more popular, popular but deserve to be more critically acclaimed, or neither popular nor critically acclaimed and deserve something from the masses. Greg Hatcher has always written about some obscure corners of pop culture, but he’s kind of carved out a niche in the pulp fiction and science fiction genres, and if I come across something from those, I’ll write about them, but I’m going to be a bit more catholic in my purview. I’m going to write about books, music, television, and movies, and maybe some other stuff, too, if I think of it. I already have several topics in mind, and I’m starting with some of my favorite books – the four novels that make up Edward Whittemore’s “Jerusalem Quarter” – Sinai Tapestry (1977), Jerusalem Poker (1979), Nile Shadows (1983), and Jericho Mosaic (1987).
Whittemore (1933-1995) published only five books in his life (Quin’s Shanghai Circus, his first, is pretty good, but not as good as these and it’s also not connected to these, which is why I’m not writing about it). According to the introduction to the new printing of Jerusalem Poker (written by his old friend and agent), Whittemore went to Yale in the 1950s and was recruited by the CIA in the 1960s before becoming a writer in the 1970s, living in Japan and Crete and finally Jerusalem before moving back to New England (he was born in Maine) in the late 1980s before dying of prostate cancer in 1995. His novels never sold well at all, although critics did like them. He was working on a novel set in the States in his later life, but he didn’t finish it before he died. I discovered his books in the Warminster Public Library around 1987, and I actually read Jericho Mosaic first. Each novel can be read alone, even though many characters appear in several of them. Jericho Mosaic is the most disconnected, which is probably why I didn’t realize it was the fourth of a series until I started looking around and finding Whittemore’s other books. I devoured them over the next few years, then forgot about them for a while. Some years later I remembered them and tried to track them down, but they were sadly out of print. In 2002, they were reprinted in nice editions with introductions (that’s the printing of Jerusalem Poker I own, although I didn’t get it at the time), but I missed those and by the time I found out about them, they too were out of print. Then, about a year ago, I decided to see if I could find them again. I managed to find them and got the beat-up editions quickly, because I didn’t want to lose them again. I’m glad I did – they’re as amazing as they were 30 years ago, when I first started reading them.
The books cover the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century, but Whittemore begins in 1819 England, when he introduces the first of dozens of remarkable characters, Plantagenet Strongbow, the twenty-ninth Duke of Dorset. Strongbow breaks out of the stultifying history of his family and Victorian England by leaving the country and going to the Middle East, where he becomes the greatest explorer, the greatest botanist, and the greatest sexual investigator in history. The early books in the quartet aren’t exactly magical realism – nothing that happens in them is strictly impossible – but they are a bit more fantastic, as Whittemore is writing about ages gone by, so the idea that Strongbow could spend decades writing a 33-volume epic on sex in all its forms or that he could attend a birthday party in celebration of Victoria’s 21st in Cairo almost completely naked is bizarre but not beyond the realm of possibility. Similarly, the other unusual person Whittemore creates in the first half of the first book is Skanderbeg Wallenstein, an Albanian who discovers the original Bible and finds out it’s gibberish, so he forges an original so good it fools every expert, even though the principals in our story know it’s a fake. Whittemore could write about Haj Harun, a former antiquities dealer in Jerusalem who says he’s 3000 years old, but we never quite know if he’s telling the truth (although the fact that he knew Strongbow in the 1850s and is still hale and hearty in the 1930s might indicate that he is). The early books are more absurd than outright impossible, as one of the main characters, Joe O’Sullivan Beare, wears an old Crimean War uniform and tells everyone he fought in it even though he was born in 1900. Another more minor character, Menelik Ziwar, spent his retirement in a sarcophagus, as he had lived his life in Egyptian tombs and felt more comfortable lying on his back in a crypt. Eventually Joe, Cairo Martyr, and Munk Szondi play poker for control of Jerusalem, and while their game technically lasts twelve years, it’s not like that’s all they do – it’s kind of intermittent. So the books combine a touch of absurdity with serious topics, but they never stray into the world of completely impossibility.
Whittemore explores many different themes, and his meandering plots and fascinating characters are what make the books such pleasures to read. Strongbow dominates the early part of the first book, along with Wallenstein on a slightly lesser level, but one of the main themes of the quartet are fathers and sons and their legacies, or even father figures and son figures, as not all of them are related. Strongbow eventually settles down and has a son (the mother is never named and has barely any page time; there’s really only one woman who figures prominently and consistently in these books, as they’re definitely male-centric), who eventually takes the name Stern, and Stern is a major figure in the first three books. Joe’s father has 33 sons and he also has the gift of prophecy, and he knows that Joe will leave Ireland and go to Jerusalem, which of course he does. Joe himself has a son whom he never sees until the boy is much older and doesn’t really need a father anymore. Skanderbeg Wallenstein has a son, the insane Catherine (the father insists on the name because he spent years forging the Bible in a cave about St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai), and Catherine’s son, Nubar, vexes Joe and his poker-playing partners throughout the second book. In Jericho Mosaic, two men, Tajar and Bell, mentor a young man named Assaf, whose father was supposedly killed during the 1956 war between Israel and Egypt but really, under Tajar’s tutelage, became the Mossad’s most successful agent in history, penetrating Syrian society and providing Israel with years of excellent intelligence. Halim, as he was known in Damascus, never returned to Israel and could never be a father to Assaf, so Tajar and Bell step in. The idea of absent fathers and the sons who never know them and can never live up to their legends is prevalent in the books, providing a good through-line as Whittemore moves through the decades.
The first book is probably my favorite, simply because Strongbow’s story is so much fun and it contains one of the most emotionally affecting pieces of writing I’ve ever read. After Strongbow leaves the book and Joe and Stern become the main characters, the action moves to 1920s Jerusalem, where Joe meets Haj Harun and Maud, the only woman who really has a major role in the books and with whom Joe has his child. Maud’s story is powerful, as she married Catherine Wallenstein, bore him a son, but escaped when his madness overcame him, then fell in love with a Greek man who was always away fighting, missing the birth and death of their child and finally dying of malaria during World War I. Maud’s fear of abandonment led to her leaving Joe with her son because she could never believe he wasn’t going to leave her first, and her betrayal led Joe to years of bitterness before they finally reconcile in Nile Shadows, 20 years after their break. Stern plots out a homeland in the Middle East for all faiths, a naïve dream that becomes more tenuous as the years go on, and Joe helps him bring guns into Palestine for the various factions he wants to help, because they all tell Stern that his dreams are great for the future but in the present they need guns. It all leads to a heartbreaking chapter at the end of the book, when Stern, Joe, and Haj Harun meet in Smyrna in September 1922 just as the Turks enter the city and begin massacring the Greeks and Armenians. Whittemore’s odd prose, which feels occasionally aloof and wry, turns dark and gut-wrenching, as the three men try to get themselves and Stern’s two friends – one of whom is the brother of the Greek man Maud fell in love with – out of the city. The story of Smyrna is tragic, and Whittemore writes about the various larger tragedies in the city as well as the very specific ones affecting the group. Joe breaks with Stern, hating his idealism in a world that can allow Smyrna to happen, and Stern eventually turns to morphine to ease the pain of his memories. The chapter is brilliant, and it provides a horrific climax to the book, one that leads directly to Stern’s death 20 years later in Cairo, an event that is the central focus of the third book, Nile Shadows.
Whittemore, however, enjoys writing these stories that meander all over the place. In Jerusalem Poker, he turns to Joe’s life after Smyrna, when he, Cairo Martyr, and Munk Szondi play their epic poker game. They come together by chance, but as usual with the books, they’re connected in ways they couldn’t imagine. Cairo learned how to be a dragoman in Egypt under the tutelage of Menelik Ziwar, who was Strongbow’s best friend. Munk was descended from a Swiss explorer who settled in Hungary and married, but not before he had already gotten an obscure Albanian noblewoman pregnant, said child growing up to be Skanderbeg Wallenstein, forger of the Sinai Bible. The Swiss explorer later traveled through the Sudan and impregnated yet another woman, whose grandson was Cairo Martyr, making he and Munk distant cousins. Munk is friends with Maud, although he met her after she left Joe in Jerusalem. He also has a brief affair with the elderly grandmother of Nubar Wallenstein, who is the odd villain in the book, one who becomes obsessed with the poker game but remains largely ineffectual at destroying it. The three men spend their years becoming richer and richer but also destroying players they deem unworthy – men who buy and sell slaves, men who steal religious icons – until the game ends in 1933. It’s not quite as emotionally affecting as the first book, but Whittemore builds on the relationships established in Sinai Tapestry to add depth to the characters.
The tone shifts in the third book, as Whittemore began dealing with topics that, perhaps, he felt didn’t lend themselves easily to his absurdist outlook. While the massacre at Smyrna was just one part of the first book, even though its influence spread into the second book, it was so localized both in time and space that Whittemore could write about other things without being crass. In Nile Shadows, however, it’s 1942 in Cairo, the darkest days of the Second World War, and Stern has been killed in a bar. Perhaps the combination of one of his main characters coming to such a sad end and the looming specter of Nazism triumphant in North Africa (and, by extension, the entire Middle East and then possibly all of Europe) makes this book a bit more somber. Whittemore still writes about some unusual and larger-than-life characters – Menelik Ziwar remains a presence in the book, as does even Strongbow, and we meet Big Belle and Little Alice, sisters who have lived on a houseboat on the Nile for as long as anyone can remember, David and Anna Cohen, whose great-grandfather was also a fast friend of Strongbow’s, and Ahmad, the clerk at the hotel where Joe stays whose father also had a connection to Strongbow. But generally, the book remains grounded in Cairo, 1942, and Joe’s attempts to find Stern and find out why British intelligence has soured on him. Stern has become a spy for the British thanks to his contacts all over the Middle East making him invaluable, but he went on a mission and came back somehow disillusioned, and the Brits head to Arizona, where Joe is living with the Indians, to recruit him and find out what’s going on with Stern. Joe reconnects with Maud after 20 years, and he digs into Stern’s life by speaking to those he knows in Cairo, but he can never quite figure out what happened with Stern, as everyone he meets is very loyal to the man and therefore is tight-lipped about his activities. Finally, he and Stern meet and have a conversation, and like the best of Whittemore’s writing, it turns into an epic discussion about the nature of man and the power of love and many esoteric topics, ending only when Stern is killed, which happens because he saves Joe’s life. The book introduces a more mundane espionage angle to the series, which began, really, in Jerusalem Poker when Nubar Wallenstein created a spy ring to delve into the mysteries of the poker game Joe was playing. That was a more fanciful espionage service, but in Nile Shadows, Stern is working for Bletchley, who runs a proper if slightly bizarre espionage ring for the British.
Espionage is at the center of Jericho Mosaic, as Whittemore introduces almost a completely new cast of characters. He brings Bletchley over from Nile Shadows and renames him Bell, a disillusioned spy living out his life in Jericho, and Anna Cohen is also a character, although a relatively minor one. It’s one of the reasons Jericho Mosaic isn’t quite as good as the previous three books – Whittemore had a rich cast, but he decided their stories were over, even the ones who were still alive. It took a while to build up the characters into people whose lives meant enough to the readers for them to be invested in them, and basically giving us an entire new cast in the fourth book meant that it was harder to care about them because they hadn’t been around for as long. The book is far more prosaic than the previous three, as much of the action takes place in Jerusalem, but not the semi-mystical city where 3000-year-old Arabs defend it while secretly visiting the vast older cities underneath the modern one, but where commandos fight house-to-house to take the city during the Six-Day War. There’s no Stern (he does get mentioned, briefly, perhaps just to link the books a bit more), flying a balloon over the desert to run guns into Palestine, and instead we get Yossi/Halim, who penetrates Syrian society so well that he is no longer even Israeli, even if he never betrays the Mossad. It’s also much more connected to the real world. While Sinai Tapestry revolved somewhat around the massacre at Smyrna in 1922, a horrific event that is more depressing the more you know about it, and Nile Shadows was concerned with an actual invasion of Egypt by the Nazis, the first three books feel almost dislodged from history, as Whittemore weaves historical events into the narrative but rarely makes them so pertinent in the characters’ lives (the notable exception being Smyrna). Even the war in Nile Shadows never comes to Cairo, and Whittemore simply brings in the anxiety felt by the citizens, which could be about any invasion, not specifically Rommel’s. But Jericho Mosaic is specifically about the early years of Israel and the struggles it had to become a viable nation. Tajar, Yossi, and Anna come of age during the war for independence; Yossi disappears and is declared dead in the Suez War; his and Anna’s son Assaf is wounded during the Six-Day War, which is a triumph for Halim because of his work for the Mossad in Damascus; the country’s confidence is shattered in the Yom Kippur War; and the book ends with Israel preparing to invade Lebanon in 1982. Halim’s mission is central to the book, but Tajar’s early days in the Mossad are also a key component, and Bell himself, an ex-spy, becomes the axis around which several characters rotate – he helped Anna get out of Cairo, he becomes a mentor to Assaf after the Six-Day War, he helps Assaf meet Yousef, an Arab Christian who becomes disillusioned with life after his brother is killed, and he converses with Halim before the Six-Day War, after which Jericho abruptly shifted from Jordan to Israel and Halim was cut off from it. Through it all, spycraft is paramount in the book.
Whittemore writes with a wry, languid style, using several words when one would do, and he obviously loves the simple act of writing. Joe is the most loquacious of the characters, as he enjoys circling and circling a topic before eventually coming to the point, veering off on tangents and wandering into blind alleys just to ruminate on various ideas he has. Most of the characters talk well, though, and they do it in their own distinctive styles. Whittemore also loves describing the places where the action is set, so we get beautiful paragraphs abut Jerusalem’s underground or Cairo’s back alleys or Smyrna’s delightful waterfront. He isn’t shy, either, as sex is a main component of the books, in all its joy and depravity. Strongbow, of course, writes about sex, but that’s not the end of it, as characters engage in everything from bestiality to incest, and Whittemore brings it all in rather nonchalantly. One character fucks animals because he’s clearly insane, but otherwise, the descriptions of sex are somewhat matter-of-fact, with very little judgment. Whittemore writes in a sprawling manner, as I noted, and one of the reasons the fourth book isn’t as good as the first three is because he tends to fall more into a more direct approach of telling us what’s going on rather than eventually getting to it through the characters’ actions. In the first two books especially, he jumps back and forth through time, so that a meeting in 1933 precedes a conversation in the 1920s but the conversation in 1920 illuminates some of the more opaque things that were said in 1933. Strongbow’s giant magnifying glass, which he used in his botany, is a good example of this – Whittemore eventually gives it a “backstory,” revealing who made it and where it ended up after Strongbow was done with it. But he takes his time getting there, and it’s more rewarding. In Jericho Mosaic, he doesn’t have the space, it seems, to wander back and forth through the ages, so we begin at Point A and move pretty much in a straight line to Point B. There’s a tiny bit of wandering, but not too much.
As with books about espionage, disguise plays a large part in the books, but also the idea of identity, trying to discover who you are, and what a person’s purpose in life is. The characters in the Jerusalem Quartet often disguise themselves, from Strongbow pretending to be an Arab in order to penetrate the holy cities of Islam to Halim disguising his entire life for 25 years in order to serve his country. In order to escape from Ireland after the Easter uprising, Joe disguises himself as a nun and joins a group on a journey to Jerusalem, where he becomes a 20-year-old veteran of the Crimean War, fought 45 years before he was born. The poker players disguise themselves as other people in order to wreak vengeance on those they believe have violated a moral code. Liffy, who works for the Brits in Cairo and picks Joe up at the airport when he arrives in town in Nile Shadows, is constantly disguising himself, as he wanted to be an actor but got caught up in the war effort. More than disguise is the way characters dress, which is a way Whittemore gives us a window into their psyches. Strongbow attends Victoria’s birthday party in Cairo completely naked, but his noble bearing is such that no one notices. Sivi dresses effeminately, which is not only because he’s gay but because of the way he views life, as a grand celebration of the senses. Moses the Ethiopian and Abu Musa dress extravagantly when they sit on Bell’s porch and talk, Moses because he was once in the court of an Ethiopian princess and Abu Musa because he’s a de facto patriarch of Jericho. Nubar Wallenstein comes up with a secret society that Whittemore obviously modeled on the Nazis, with leather uniforms and skulls on peaked caps and black gloves, an indication of Nubar’s deranged state of mind and sexual perversions, which Whittemore doesn’t make explicit but implies heavily. Later, Nubar meets his fate wearing mostly women’s clothing, and the implication is once again that his twisted sense of sexuality was part of his undoing. (Whittemore, I should point out again, is fairly non-judgmental about sexual proclivities in the books. Your sex life is part of who you are, so if you’re an admirable character, like Sivi, your homosexuality is part of that, but if you’re a despicable character, like Nubar, your sexuality is twisted in some way. The fact that Nubar is gay doesn’t make him bad, nor is he bad because he’s gay. His sexuality is part of his warped upbringing, and Whittemore implies that whatever sex you enjoy is shaped – in both good ways and bad – by how you grow up. With whom you have sex is not as important as what kind of person you are, which shapes the way you have sex.)
The idea of disguise is wrapped up in the quest for identity, as the characters struggle to figure out who they are. This is the central idea of the books, tying into the theme of fathers and sons and the idea of espionage obscuring true identities. Stern lives in the shadow of his famous father, and his desire to carve his own niche leads to his belief that he needs to create a homeland in the Levant for people of the three great faiths of the area, an idea that leads him to tragedy at Smyrna, a morphine addiction, and his squalid but heroic death in a Cairo bar. Joe is the last of 33 sons, and half of his brothers die in World War I, while he ends up fighting in the Easter Rebellion. When he arrives in Jerusalem in 1920, he’s already led a full life but one defined by his family and his Irishness, and he spends the next 20-odd years tying to determine who he is – is he a gunrunner for Stern, the lover of Maud and father of Bernini, one of the richest men in Jerusalem, or even the medicine man of the Hopi in Arizona? Cairo Martyr wants revenge on the Mamelukes who raped his grandmother, and he turns that into a quest for vengeance against all Muslims, but he comes to realize that that won’t fulfill him. Munk Szondi doesn’t want to play music like the rest of the men in his family, so he heads to the East from Hungary to find his destiny. The book is full of characters breaking from the traditions of their families or their cultures (or both) – Strongbow, Skanderbeg Wallenstein, Joe, Munk, Menelik Ziwar, Maud, Sivi, Theresa, Bletchley/Bell, Yousef, and Yossi/Halim. For Whittemore, the quest for your own path is the most important thing you can undertake, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Such a quest leads you to a place where dreams come true – Jerusalem, sure, but a mythical Jerusalem, a City on the Hill, one that you can reach in your mind even if you never make it to the actual city. The quest also leads to love, which for Whittemore is one of the most important things you can gain on your quest for self-realization. No one really gets a happy ending with the person they love in the books, but for Whittemore, the brief moments of intense love are as important as holding onto that love. Joe and Maud’s month in Aqaba, where Bernini is conceived, is more important than if they had stayed together. The memory of his affair with Anna is what makes Bell believe in the beauty of life. The love Joe and Stern have for each other is what makes their break in Smyrna that much more devastating, while the love Halim has for the pathetic Ziad is what drives Halim to his ultimate fate after Zaid is killed in Lebanon. Love might be fleeting, but it makes the characters what they are and gives them a goal to attain, and for Whittemore, that’s a grand thing.
Critics always seemed to like Whittemore’s novels, but they were never popular. In the back of the new printing of Jerusalem Poker, one of his editors writes that “[Whittemore] was famous to about six thousand people who thought he was a genius; nobody else had ever heard of him at all.” Such are the vagaries of publishing, and Whittemore never became a literary giant. His books can be difficult – he tells a lot instead of showing, his style can feel aloof and labyrinthine, and his characters seem like caricatures when they’re first introduced, only becoming more fascinating the more you read. They’re very rewarding, though, and I often hope that some celebrity will find his books and decide to make movies or a television show out of them, just so they can be reprinted and perhaps gain a wider audience. You can find them on Amazon for not a lot of money, and I’ve provided a link below to Sinai Tapestry, but none of them come directly from Amazon, as they’re out of print, so caveat emptor and all that. If you find them anywhere – a library, a used bookstore somewhere in Oregon or Washington (that’s for Greg Hatcher!), or anywhere else, I encourage you to pick them up. They’re some of my favorite books ever, and it would be keen if more people read them.