Anyone who took an English literature class is likely familiar with William Blake’s poems “The Tyger,” and “And did those feet in ancient time,” better known as the hymn “Jerusalem.” This novel is built on the premise that Blake, a radical non-conformist, would have fit in well with the flower children of San Francisco. The poet’s intense interest in metaphysics and his compelling artwork figure prominently in Who Killed Jerusalem?
What doesn’t figure prominently, or at all, is William Blake himself. In this murder mystery, he never existed. In his place is a man named Ickey Jerusalem, San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate. Handsome, rich, his work about to receive widespread recognition, Jerusalem seemingly has everything to live for. Instead, he ends up dead inside a toilet cubicle in first class on a 747 flight from New York to San Francisco. It looks like suicide, but was it?
On the same flight is Dedalus “Ded” Smith, a morose, divorced life insurance claims adjuster who is roped into helping investigate the poet’s death, setting off a freewheeling journey through the heart of San Francisco’s counterculture.
It’s a clever conceit, with many humorous episodes, including a funeral where guests are served pieces of a flat, man-sized cookie containing the late Ickey Jerusalem’s ashes and a Halloween party with guests in weird costumes, like the woman dressed as a plate of spaghetti, her breasts representing meatballs.
The bizarre characters add to the fun. There’s Jerusalem’s pint-sized sister-in-law, willing to have sex with anyone, at any time. Or his huge, hideous driver, who pilots a beat-up black hearse with a raised chassis with wild abandon. Add in Jerusalem’s 12 siblings and a host of hangers-on, however, and it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of everyone.
And although the author writes that foreknowledge of Blake isn’t required to appreciate the story, such familiarity would help readers better tolerate stretches where the action grinds to a halt for lengthy discussions of the nature of reality or the imagery in Jerusalem’s/Blake’s poems.
Most readers should be able to overlook such issues. If so, they will find a big, joyous book, worth reading simply for the fun of it.