The Devil in Jerusalem by Naomi Ragen is an intense thriller. It explores the horrific abuse, both emotional and physical, that can be inflicted on cult followers. Based on a true, well-known Israeli court case, the story has been fictionalized to add depth to the plot. Although the novel centers around an ultra-Orthodox self-proclaimed religious leader and his acolytes, these characters could easily be replaced by other religious psychopaths (Jim Jones and David Koresh come to mind).
From the very first page readers are drawn to the conditions of two young children brought to Hadassah Hospital with horrific injuries; one has severe head trauma and the other extensive burns. It is here that the author introduces the main character, Daniella Goodman, the children’s mother. She refuses to speak to the authorities brought in to investigate this obvious child abuse, and instead just prays from the Book of Psalms.
In order to convey how any mother can let something so terrible happen to her children, Ragen does a good job of delving into Daniella’s backstory. During her college years she is an idealistic, intelligent person who decides to drop out of school, marry for love, become the best mother she can be, and eventually immigrate to Israel with the hope of finding spiritual fulfillment. Instead, the family struggles financially and is overwhelmed after having seven children in a very short period of time. Abandoned by her husband emotionally, she falls prey to this psychopathic cult leader, becoming a victim of his mind games. She loses all control as he takes away her ability to think and resist.
Ragen brilliantly leads the reader through a number of transformations regarding their feelings toward Daniella. One goes from disliking her in the beginning of the book, to rooting for her during the backstory, to wondering how she could allow her children to be tortured and herself manipulated. Yet, by the end of the book it is hard not to feel sympathy for her, understanding that she became helpless and brainwashed. The reader’s emotions run parallel to those of the protagonist, Detective Bina Tzedek, also an Orthodox mother.
A word of warning: the abuse scenes are described in graphic detail. If the author set out to jolt and horrify the reader, she has achieved her goal through making people aware of the mistreatment by those who hijack a religion. The Devil in Jerusalem is a terrifying thriller, but even more upsetting is the fact that this story was based on a true event. Readers will be kept riveted to this gripping narrative.