Okay, I admit I’m a fan of the Rabbi Ben mysteries by Marvin J. Wolf, of which A Tale of Two Rabbis is third in the series. If you want the backstory, read For Whom the Shofar Blows (released as The Tattooed Rabbi) and A Scribe Dies in Brooklyn (which I reviewed for Splash). It’s in Scribe, the second installment, that Rabbi Moishe Benyamin Maimon, Talmudic scholar and professional lock-pick, meets his fiancée Miryam when he rummages around her house for ancient Hebrew manuscripts. This third time out, Miryam is still very much in the story, but she’s offstage for a substantial portion – allowing her to show up in a show-down late in the book.
Rabbi Ben’s love affair with the gorgeous Miryam is platonic, so far. That’s because he’s a chronic sufferer with HIV. He has bravely offered himself up to a geneticist-researcher friend who is giving him injections of an experimental, breakthrough drug. Honorable in all things, Ben won’t allow himself to be intimate with Miryam – not only because they’re not married yet – but also because he vows to refrain until his viral load is low enough to prevent infecting her.
Ben is a detective-protagonist who embraces his own flaws and yet adheres to a rigid moral code. He won’t carry a weapon, but when cornered he’ll prove his mastery of the martial arts. He’s not above depriving his attacker of a weapon and then using it to protect innocent lives, including his own. And he’s not only a dextrous picker of locks but also an expert in all manner of police-procedural skills, including finding clues in the timeline interactions of video surveillance cameras and computerized alarm systems.
Scribe is reminiscent of the Dan Brown mysteries about unscrupulous plotters who covet ancient manuscripts to further their own nefarious ends. Two Rabbis returns to the theme of Shofar – it’s all about financial corruption in the leadership of a Jewish congregation. It seems that Rabbi Jeremiah Geltkern, spiritual leader of the Sanoker Shul in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, has gone missing. So have most of the temple’s records – including books of account and potentially explanatory correspondence. Rabbi Ben takes on the case of following the paper trail, which he finds is figuratively and then literally splattered with blood.
Bad guys and their goons don’t want inquiries made.
The complex financial affairs of the shul are intertwined with the legacy of its companion institution, the Sanoker Home, a retirement community. If you remember the scam behind the Albacore Club in the movie Chinatown, you may see similarities. Demented and even dead retirees own plots of land that have been optioned at bargain prices by real-estate developers with big plans.
Wolf’s command of plot complexities and reversals will manipulate you shamelessly to the story’s culmination – when the darkest of dark secrets will come to light. You see, besides his health crisis, Rabbi Ben has been dealing with a longstanding emotional illness: His own father disappeared long ago.
Ben’s father was reputed to be a con man who preyed on Jewish congregations. But don’t assume this fact is a spoiler. Wolf holds plenty of other cards, so beware that impish grin in his headshot!