Many years ago, I came across an Avon paperback of Jerusalem Poker, by an author I had never heard of named Edward Whittemore. It was a startling, imaginative, hilarious, and complex tall tale of Middle Eastern politics and history, at the center of which was a 12-year-long poker game, beginning in 1921, with the ultimate prize being clandestine control of the entire city of Jerusalem. I hardly ever came across Whittemore's name again; it turns out that Jerusalem Poker was one of only three of his five novels to enjoy even brief mass-market paperback editions, and that his hardcover sales never exceeded 5,000 copies despite glowing reviews. Now all five novels have been reissued by Old Earth Books - which has previously reprinted works by Doc Smith, James White, and Edgar Pangborn - and it seems fair to say that this is by far their most significant rediscovery and their most important publishing achievement to date. Each volume comes with a biographical sketch by Whittemore's agent Tom Wallace, a memoir by his editor Judy Karasik, and an introduction by authors as varied as John Nichols and Jay Neugeboren.

Whittemore - a former Marine officer, CIA agent, and narcotics control officer who died in 1995 - apparently possessed one of the most bizarre and creatively paranoid historical imaginations of the latter half of the 20th century. At the time he was writing (all the novels were published between 1974 and 1987), there wasn't much to compare him to except Pynchon with whom he shares surface similarities, but now that the crypto-historical novel has nearly become a subgenre of its own in works by Tim Powers, Christopher Priest, Neal Stephenson, and others, it begins to look as though Whittemore was a story-teller a decade or so in advance of his time; his baroquely comic and conspiratorial view of history resonates so richly today that there is virtually no sense of these novels being dated. Often, undiscovered classics remain undiscovered for good reasons but in Whittemore's case, everyone seems to have missed the boat - perhaps because of earlier attempts to position these as espionage novels (which is a bit like trying to position Ulysses as a walking tour of Dublin), even though his approach to his material is that of a fantasist (one early reviewer even compared him to Tolkien, and Jonathan Carroll and Jeff VanderMeer have counted themselves among his admirers).

These are novels that revel in the joy of storytelling, that embed shrewd political insights in surrealist images (a 1937 picnic in which three of the four participants are wearing gas masks turns out to be what saved Moscow from the Nazis - for reasons that make perfect sense when Whittemore gets round to explaining them), that are unabashedly fantastical in nature. (They are also, to be sure, enormous shaggy-dog tales that may try the patience of readers impatient with digression) I'm using the "fantastical" here to describe the tone of the writing and the intricacies of plotting, but those who insist on elements of the material fantastic can rest assured that one of the characters who knits together the four volumes of Whittemore's masterpiece the Jerusalem Quartet, is a 3000-year-old shopkeeper who was once a knight errant and who operated an all-night grocery during the Roman Empire, and that other elements of fantasy and grotesquerie are peppered throughout the novels, such as a Venetian palazzo, once occupied by Byron, which vanishes entirely in a puff of smoke.

Jerusalem Poker (1978), which I'd read so long ago is the second volume of the Quartet, which traces an elaborate secret history of the Middle East from the early 19th century through the early 1980s. An earlier stand-alone novel (though with a few characters that reappear in the Quartet) is Quin's Shanghai Circus (1974) which may serve as a kind of primer for Whittemore's sometimes convoluted narrative techniques and his gonzo approach to history. That novel begins in 1965, when an immense con man named Geraty arrives in New York on a freighter, bearing with him "the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue", a vast collection of translated manuscripts dating from the 13th century. In a Brooklyn bar once owned by his family, he arranges to accidentally meet the 30-year-old Quin, claiming that he knows secrets about the parents Quin never met, and that these secrets involve a slightly retarded young man named Big Gobi (after an espionage cell Quin's parents belonged to) and an old, reclusive, and possibly crazy priest in Tokyo.

Quin, together with Big Gobi, sets sail to Tokyo to track down the priest, Father Lamereaux, and to begin piecing together the hidden roles that all these characters played in the history of pre-war Japan and China (it was Lamereaux and Quin's parents, for example, who participated in that bizarre 1937 gas-mask picnic, together with an even shadier figure named Adzhar, a brilliant Russian chemist and linguist who had fled after an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Czar in 1881 and who had advised Trotsky that a revolution in 1917 would succeed because it coincided with Passamaquoddy Indian cycles). We also meet Mama, a nightclub owner who is the most powerful woman in Japan (and who claims to have slept with 10,000 men before turning 25); her brother (a torturer who served time in Siberia and who later murdered the Japanese general in charge of the rape of Nanking in 1937, and whose overcoat was stolen by Geraty); her lover Baron Kikuchi and his older brother (who converts to Judaism and becomes Rabbi Kikuchi-Lottman); the rabbi's adopted son who becomes the third most powerful gangster in the world; and a huge number of other characters, all connected in intricate ways to each other and to the major events of the period.

Lest all this seem merely absurdist invention without gravity, Whittemore makes two of the central events of the novel the rape of Nanking, which is described with unflinching brutality, and the circus of the title, staged for a group of wealthy "degenerates" in a Shanghai warehouse as World War II looms. The performance, "a circus of the mind," becomes a surreal manifestation of the pathological horrors that underlie the historical turmoil of the period, and it alone - as each act is sabotaged in increasingly gruesome, ways - would qualify Quin's Shanghai Circus for consideration as a horror novel. But as the novel ends with Quin meeting once more with Geraty, now posing as a holy man in a remote Japanese village, it becomes clear that Whittemore's ambition has little to do with genre and a great deal to do with the notion of history as fantasy, as a complex interlocking of tales-within-tales that can only be subsumed as elements of a vast untold story.

This view becomes even more clear, and far more complex, in the novels that make up the Jerusalem Quartet. The first of these, Sinai Tapestry (1977), establishes the historical background for the entire series and introduces characters whose disciples and descendants will move the action into the 20th century. Plantagenet Strongbow, an English earl born in 1819, is a near-mythical figure who combines elements of Sir Richard Button and Tarzan. Rejecting his family's comically decadent heritage (for centuries, each new heir has died young in stupid accidents, such as dozing off and falling into the fire place), Strongbow becomes the "most awesome explorer his country ever produced". A seven-foot seven-inch giant, he turns himself into a legendary swordsman and botanist while at Cambridge, but soon renounces everything to disappear into the Middle East, where he becomes a Bedouin Hakim, eventually produces a scandalous 33 volume history of Levantine sex, and at one point buys the entire Ottoman Empire. An almost equally legendary character is Skanderberg Wallenstein, born in Albania in 1802 to exiles from the Holy Roman Empire, who becomes a devoted Trappist monk and joins a monastery in Jerusalem. There, while cleaning out an unused storeroom, he discovers an ancient manuscript which not only is the oldest Bible in the world, dating from 930 B.C., but which "denied every religious truth ever held by anyone." He further learns that this original Bible consisted of the ramblings of a blind beggar transcribed literally by an imbecile. Determined to suppress his discovery, Wallenstein spends decades forging an alternate "original Bible" which will preserve the major beliefs of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and which he will bury and then rediscover in the place of the original. The existence and location of the original "Sinai Bible" eventually becomes a powerful legend in Jerusalem (though where it finally ends up is an off-the-wall twist even for Whittemore).

Two other major characters are the Irishman Joe O'Sullivan Beare, who fled to the Holy Land disguised as a nun after the Easter Uprising of 1916 and who is later mistaken for both a Crimean War hero and Prester John; and Haj Harun, the 3,000-year-old shopkeeper who once was a stonecarver for the Assyrians, and beneath whose shop in the Old City are caverns containing the remnants of dozens of earlier Old Cities, where can be found, among other things, 800-year old cognac and chapels built by the Crusaders. In one of the quartet's most suggestive recurring images, Haj Harun, who embodies the spirit of the city, wears an ill-fitting Crusader's helmet which is constantly shifting and shaking dust into his eyes. And there is the American-born figure skater Maud, who travels to Europe as part of the 1906 Olympic team, eventually marrying Wallenstein's mad son Catherine (named after the monastery where he discovered the Sinai Bible), with whom she bears a son named Nubar, who becomes the main villain of Jerusalem Poker. She later flees to Jerusalem and falls in love with Beare, which whom she has another son named Bernini. The remaining major character is Strongbow's son, Stern, who grows up to become a gunrunner obsessed with a utopian vision of a new country that will be "a homeland for all the peoples of his heritage," "one nation embracing Arabs and Christians and Jews." Stern's naive and increasingly compromised idealism comes to dominate the final chapters of the novel, which ends in Cairo in 1942.

Jerusalem Poker (1978) returns the main action to 1921, when Beare starts a poker game in Haj Harun's shop with Cairo Martyr, a former Egyptian slave who has gained control of the city's Arab quarter after building a fortune selling mummy dust as an aphrodisiac and Monk Szondi, heir to a Swiss family in which the men all became musicians while the women (called the Sarahs) built a huge international banking empire (which had nearly faced ruin when they discovered that someone - who we now know to be Strongbow - had bought the Ottoman Empire out from under them). Links with the earlier novel abound. Cairo's mentor was the great Egyptologist Menelik Ziwar, who had been Strongbow's closest friend and carried on a forty-year-long conversation with him, and his mother's grandmother had spent time with the legendary Johann Luigi Szondi, the father of Skanderberg Wallenstein and great-grandfather of both Nubar Wallenstein and Munk Szondi. Nubar, the son of Maud and Catherine Wallenstein grows up with an obsessive interest in collecting all the existing manuscripts of Paracelsis, spending a fortune developing a network of book-hunters which evolves into a vast criminal organization. When one of his spies reports on the Great Jerusalem Poker Game, he decides to infiltrate it and gain secret control of the city for himself. While the game itself, with unsuccessful challengers losing vast fortunes and suffering strange punishments over the years, provides a continuous narrative arc for the various tales within tales (and it does finally have a winner), the novel itself is another tapestry or mosaic (to use terms from other Whittemore titles), although the infinite shifting and recombining of the cards may be an even more apt metaphor for the ways in which Whittemore structures his books.

The final two novels in the quartet, Nile Shadows (1983) and Jericho Mosaic (1987), edge more clearly toward the espionage tale, but an espionage tale given mythic dimensions by the huge historical tapestry which we now know preceded it. Nile Shadows begins in Cairo in 1942, as Rommel's tanks are approaching the city, when a hand grenade thrown in a Cairo slum kills a petty thief and gunrunner named Stern But some oddities in Stem's file, including an inexplicable escape from a Damascus prison in 1939 shortly before he was to be released, have already caught the attention of Allied Intelligence. O'Sullivan Beare, now living as a Hopi shaman in Arizona, becomes a real wartime spy, recruited to track down the story of Stem's life, since it's not at all clear who Stern's gunrunning was supposed to benefit. Headquartered in a former brothel called the Hotel Babylon and working with strangely disfigured agents (the most colorful of whom is named Bletchley) from competing intelligence operations called the Waterboys and the Monastery, Beare begins to unravel the secrets of Stern's life in an investigation that again takes him decades into the past, invoking such familiar names as Menelik Ziwar and Strongbow while introducing newer ones such as David Cohen and the Hotel Babylon bartender Ahmad, both of whom were friends of Stem and each of whom had family connections to Menelik Ziwar and Strongbow. Although more focused on a single investigation and less panoramic than the earlier novels, this novel, too, uses its central plot element as a central metaphor - in this case, the shifting loyalties and uncertain identities of espionage, which seem merely political echoes of how individuals form their own secret alliances to survive, and to influence others.

Jericho Mosaic, the final novel in the series, finally moves beyond the overt shadows of Strongbow and the other mythic figures (though there are recurring characters from Nile Shadows, and the protagonist's spyrnaster knew in his youth of the Great Jerusalem Poker Game and the Sinai Bible). Set mostly in Jerusalem, Damascus, and Jericho, the novel's central character is Yossi, who is trained to be a master deep-cover agent named Halim (his tale is supposedly loosely based on the real-life career of Israeli master spy Eli Cohen). While much of the novel details how a master spy is created, the novel also offers vivid accounts of the Six-Day War, the origins of the PLO, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the Lebanese civil war. Whittemore's insights as a political analyst are as much on display as his storytelling inventiveness, and the novel concludes by bringing his mythic secret history into a remarkably insightful and credible portrait of the dark realpolitik of the current Middle East. As a whole, the Jerusalem Quartet is one of the most remarkable examples in recent literature of how an author may transform history into myth, and then return us to received history while forcing us to see it in an entirely new light.

Review by Gary K Wolfe

This review is reprinted with permission from Locus Magazine - Issue 506 Volume 50 No3 - March 2003


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