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The Intrigue of the Shapira Scrolls - an Editorial Review of "The Eleventh Commandment"

Book Blurb:

A True Story that Reads Like Fiction

In 1856, young Moses Shapira entered the Jaffa Gate of old Jerusalem, determined to make his fortune any way he could. By 1872, he was widely recognized as the foremost antiquarian dealer in Europe. Tourists from around the world came to his shop in the Street of the Christians. Museums fought to buy his Moabite figures and pots, excavated with the help of Bedouin tribes, deep in the caves above the Wadi Mujib in Moab.

In 1883, he revealed his greatest find—sixteen strips of hand-inked, leather-like documents—3,000 years old. They told an earlier version of the Last Words of Moses to the Hebrews: what became known as the Book of Deuteronomy. But this version had an extra commandment: Thou shalt not slay the soul of thy brother.

He offered them to the British Museum for a million pounds. The London papers could talk of little else than “The Shapira Scrolls” for three months. But were they authentic? Everything hung on the judgement of two scholars, Christian David Ginsburg, a friend to Moses, and Charles Clermont-Ganneau, his arch-enemy. By the end of the summer, both men declared the scrolls were a forgery, and Moses Shapira left London in disgrace.

Six months later, he was found in a shabby hotel in Rotterdam, a bullet through his head.

But was it suicide, as the police seemed to think—or was it murder?

John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget face their most perplexing case yet, as they become involved in investigating the death of Moses Shapira—and determining the fate of the Shapira Scrolls.

This is the fourth book in the John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget historical mystery series. For more information about the author, this series, and her other novels, please visit

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Author Bio:

Mary F. Burns is the author of several books of historical fiction and an historical mystery series featuring the artist John Singer Sargent and the writer Violet Paget (aka Vernon Lee). She is a member of and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and a former member of the HNS Conference board of directors. She has been a regular panelist and speaker at the North American Historical Novel Society Conference. She is also a member of the Henry James Society and the International Vernon Lee Society. Ms. Burns was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in English; she also holds a J.D. from Golden Gate University. She lives in San Francisco with her husband.

Editorial Review:

Lord Parke was frowning as he looked out the train window at rolling fields, brown, and half-frozen in the lees of winter. John had closed his eyes for some much-needed sleep, and I was busy thinking – remembering every detail I could recall from the previous summer and autumn, about the scandal of the Shapira Scrolls – and trying in vain to recall the content of my brief conversation with Mr. Shapira himself.

Stunning! Fast-paced! Intriguing! All worthy adjectives for this historical mystery set during the late 1800s and spanning the regions of Israel, London, Rotterdam and Paris. The reader is captivated from the very start as the story envelopes you into the intrigue as Moses Shapira, a renowned dealer in Biblical antiquities is discovered dead in his hotel room, and his recent discovery, the possible oldest known writings of Deuteronomy, now in the safe custody of author Miss Violet Paget (Vernon Lee) and her friend and artist, John Singer Sargent.

One of the Bedouin, at a sign from the Sheik, began to speak, falling into a sort of sing-song, story-telling voice that Moses knew well, and had come to love. The desert people lived outside of Time, and saw no need to hurry the telling of a good story – stories were Life, and Life was Eternal.

When Lee and Sargent receive the leather manuscripts, they embark on a trip to the Hotel Willemsbrug in Rotterdam to investigate the death of the dealer. Having previously solved a crime, along with another companion, Lord Parke, who also goes along on the journey to Rotterdam, Miss Lee takes the lead in using her intuitive detective skills in discovering the who, how, and whys of the man's demise.

Sargent has the manuscript in his safe custody but during the trip, a mysterious woman in blue, attacks the artist with the intent of stealing the manuscripts.

The mystery deepens as Miss Lee's curiosity about these manuscripts, deemed by a renowned Biblical scholar at the British Museum as forgeries, as to why such forgeries would be worth anyone's daring attempt at theft. Are they indeed forgeries, or are they as Shapira claimed... the actual original writings of Deuteronomy which include an eleventh commandment unknown to world!

Others, however, less bound to judicial reserve, have not hesitated to denounce the manuscript as a forgery; and M. Clermont-Ganneau, whose letter we publish to-day, refuses even to admit that it is a clever forgery.”

The investigation leads Miss Lee and her companions back to Paris, and then on to London to question the scholar who deemed them forgeries... and to find out his possible connection to the death, now ruled as a 'murder'. Without giving too much more away, the reader must take this journey with Violet and get to the bottom of this fascinating mystery! The well-woven story and tightly-knitted clues embedded in this narrative, as well as the extraordinary development of the characters, will keep readers who love historical mysteries reading well into the night without putting this down until the last page.

It has occurred to me, as I look over all the statements scholars have made – and only the ones who actually saw the scrolls, themselves, and worked on possible translations, of some or all of the characters – as I read those statements, it seems to me that so much of it is steeped in fear, the fear of change, the fear that what is known is wrong, and that one must give up a cherished notion for something new, something perhaps less comfortable.”

Mary Burns, the author of “The Eleventh Commandment” is to be commended for her adept skill in historical mystery writing and this should be the next one on anyone's list who admires the likes of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series of books. An excellent read full of rich language, spot-on research, and ambient settings which will sweep a reader away to the scorching desert and caves of Moab.


“The Eleventh Commandment” by Mary F. Burns receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



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