Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Eleventh Commandment by Mary F. Burns delves into a Victorian-era archaeological scandal

On March 9, 1884, a Jerusalem-based antiquities dealer named Moses Wilhelm Shapira was found dead in his Rotterdam hotel room. He had presumably killed himself in despair, following revelations that the leathery scroll fragments he’d tried to sell to the British Museum for a million pounds were forgeries. But did he, in fact, commit suicide? And were the documents fake?

These tantalizing questions circle through Mary F. Burns’ latest historical mystery. Her amateur detectives – this is fourth in a series, though it stands fine on its own – are good friends Violet Paget (noted writer under the pseudonym Vernon Lee) and John Singer Sargent (the successful portrait painter).

The Eleventh Commandment imagines that before his death, Shapira had mailed some of the scrolls to Sargent, a sympathetic acquaintance, for safekeeping since he feared for his life. After receiving them and learning about Shapira’s death, John and Violet join forces with Lord James Parke, a mutual friend on the board of the British Museum, to discover the truth. They board a train to Rotterdam, where their adventures begin. Scenes of their investigation alternate with an account written by Myriam Harry, Shapira’s daughter, describing her father’s life and sharing her concerns about his welfare.

In all my years of reading historical fiction, this was my first acquaintance with Moses Shapira and the controversy over the “Shapira Scrolls,” which mysteriously vanished from sight long ago. Debates about their authenticity still percolate today. Shapira had believed they’d command a high price because one fragment, with text written in ancient Hebrew, appeared to contain an early version of Deuteronomy from the Old Testament, with an unfamiliar new commandment.

Shapira was a colorful character, a Polish-born Jew who converted to Christianity, moved to the Holy Land, developed a passion for Biblical artifacts, and opened a shop catering to other “good Christians who yearn for evidence of the truths in the Bible,” as his wife describes in the novel. His life was highly dramatic, and it’s all here: treasure-seeking excursions into the Middle Eastern desert, cutthroat academic rivalry, thievery, scandal… and that’s all before the scrolls come into the picture.

Regarding the fictional aspects, Violet and John form a good team. In real life, the pair were childhood friends, and their warm, mutually supportive relationship is fun to witness. Both have other preoccupations, too. John is struggling to perfect his Madame X portrait, and Violet amusingly maneuvers through awkward situations with the parents of her romantic interest, poet Mary Robinson. The suspect list is limited in comparison to other mysteries, though because it avoids simplistic solutions, the story is particularly thought-provoking. The circumstances of what might have happened when, how, and by whom are interesting to puzzle out.

The Eleventh Commandment was published by Word by Word Press in March (thanks to the author for sharing a PDF with me).


  1. Interesting subject and the plot sounds good as well. Thanks for the review.

  2. Thanks, it was definitely an interesting topic to learn more about.