A number of years ago Ian Caldwell co-authored a book that became a runaway bestseller. It was called The Rule Of Four and it kind of knocked everbody’s cassocks off right at the time when it was all Da Vinci this, the Name Of The Rose that. Since then Caldwell’s spent years working working on another book. It’s called The Fifth Gospel.
Here’s the blurb:
A lost gospel, a relic, and a dying pope’s final wish send two brothers – both Vatican priests – on a quest to untangle Christianity’s biggest mystery.
2004. As Pope John Paul II’s reign enters its twilight, a mysterious exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums. A week before it is scheduled to open, its curator is murdered. The same night, a violent break-in rocks the home of the curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest who lives inside the Vatican with his five-year-old son. When the papal police fail to identify a suspect in either crime, Father Alex, desperate to keep his family safe, undertakes his own investigation.
To find the killer he must reconstruct the dead curator’s secret: what the four Christian gospels – and a little-known, true-to-life fifth gospel known as the Diatessaron – reveal about the Church’s most controversial holy relic. But just as he begins to understand the truth about his friend’s death, and its consequences for the future of the world’s two largest Christian Churches, Father Alex finds himself hunted down …
There’s a lot to admire in The Fifth Gospel. It’s a book about faith and religious history wrapped up in a slippery murder mystery and a twisty-turny courtroom drama, and has a kind of highbrow gravitas to it. It’s the Da Vinci Code for people with A-levels. It’s also a primer in the history of the Catholic Church for those of us who daydreamed about the tuck shop during RE.
I found the central conspiracy –- very much based around the interpretation of the gospels and the discovery of, yes, a fifth gospel –- a bit dry for my tastes. Theology is deffo not my thing, although my interest briefly flared with the introduction of our old friend The Shroud Of Turin. But the central mystery unfolds nicely as Father Alex’s investigation takes him further up the Vatican pole and the courtroom scenes, set in the Vatican’s own arcane legal system, give a maddening sense of shifting sands.
But it’s the location — The Fifth Gospel rarely steps outside of Vatican City — that’s worth the price of admission here. The city state is an absolutely fascinating place — secretive and surreal. Barely 100 acres big, it’s an amalgam of Number Six’s Village, Gormenghast, Westeros and Craggy Island.
It’s an enclosed place — like nowhere else on earth — with its own arcane laws and surreal lifestyle, its own army — the Swiss Guard — and police force and car service and shops and schools and palaces and businesses and archives. Many of its priests and its workforce — it has a population of 700,00 or so — have grown up there and will never leave.
Like the rest of the world, modern life is slowly encroaching on the Vatican’s cramped heritage. Old buildings and beautiful courtyards are paved over to provide car parking for millions of visitors, and yet it’s still a mysterious and oddly-Kafkaesque place where bureaucrats pore over the meaning of the gospels to doggedly pursue ancient internal conflicts.
Caldwell’s writing is sturdy and measured, if a little stiff sometimes — there’s one breathtaking scene in an underground boxing match that makes you think Caldwell would be rather a writer of action if he lets himself go a bit — but it’s the research that takes your breath away, the whole scope of the thing.
You get a real sense of the Vatican, and the seemingly never-ending hierarchy of clerics swishing about in big cars and the ruthlessness and the corruption and the godliness, and the lost corridors and tombs containing extraordinary treasures and the big, big resentments — never forgotten, never forgiven — which have lasted for a thousand years in this closed-off, almost dystopian society. It’s the perfect location for a conspiracy thriller and Caldwell wrings snakes-and-ladders tension out of every inch of the place.
God bless Simon And Schuster for the review copy.
We’re delighted to say that Ian gives us the intel on The Fifth Gospel later in the week. We’ve discussed this — me and the other Fellas on the Board — and have come to the conclusion that it’s probably one of the best ones we’ve ever done. Rather aptly, it you can check that out on Good Friday.