Tag Archives: Ian Caldwell

The Intel: Ian Caldwell

Ian CaldwellWe don’t just throw stuff at this site and hope for the best, you know. A bit of thought goes into it, a bit of planning and foresight. Not much — a bit. Which is why, this Easter week, we’ve been featuring Ian Caldwell’s The Fifth Gospel, with its Turin Shroud-themed mystery. Caldwell co-wrote the conspiracy The Rule of Four and has spent years researching his latest subject — a theological murder-mystery set in Vatican City.

We’re delighted that Ian has agreed to give us the intel on his latest book. He’s a generous and engaging interviewee, and has some absolutely fascinating stuff to say about the veracity of the carbon-testing on the Shroud, the gospels, the murky history of crime within the walls of the Vatican — and, of course, about writing and researching The Fifth Gospel.

What was the inspiration for The Fifth Gospel?

An enigma of history that I first came upon twelve years ago:  if you close your eyes and conjure a mental image of Jesus Christ, the man you see staring back at you has dark, long hair and a beard.  This is how Jesus has seemingly been painted in Christian art for two thousand years — and yet the truth is that the Bible never tells us how Jesus looked, and there are major discrepancies in early Christian art:  we find Jesus sometimes portrayed with short hair, sometimes beardless, as if no one was quite sure how he looked.  So why is it that, about sixteen centuries ago, the bearded, long-haired Jesus we know today became almost universal?  It’s as though the whole world suddenly became aware of a single image of Jesus so authoritative that all other images were discarded.  So what was that single authoritative image?  The Fifth Gospel found its beginning in that question.

 Vatican City is very much a character in the book itself. It’s a closed and secretive place – did you get much access to its many palaces and offices?

I got much more access than I expected — yet not in the way I expected it.  I’m not Catholic myself, and I began writing The Fifth Gospel at a time when the Church had little interest in talking to a novelist.  American newspapers were full of headlines about the priest abuse crisis, and it certainly didn’t help that my previous novel, The Rule of Four, had frequently been compared to The Da Vinci Code, a book that didn’t win many friends inside the Vatican.  Little by little, though, I convinced a handful of priests that I had done my homework and that I was serious about making The Fifth Gospel meticulously authentic.  They opened up to me, and when they couldn’t answer some of my questions, they referred me to other priests.

What I discovered was that once you have referrals from other clergy, you’ve finally got a foot in the door.  That process repeated itself until I found myself interviewing prelates who were higher and higher on the clerical ladder, some of them who worked (or still work) at the Vatican.  I have been asked by some of them not to divulge their names publicly, but suffice it to say that by the end of my research odyssey, I found very few doors that were closed to me.

​​Did you discover much about crimes that have taken place in the city?

​Oh, yes.  ​Some very strange things have happened on Vatican soil.  When the Vatican jail was first opened in the 1930s, it was because a woman had tried to murder an archbishop in Saint Peter’s Basilica.  In the 1980s, police had to shoot and kill an ax-wielding would-be murderer at the pope’s summer residence.  There have bombings, homicides, and several gruesome symbolic suicides.  Meanwhile, the pope’s employees have perpetrated some very clever, Ocean’s Eleven-style thefts, including one that had police scratching their heads because they couldn’t figure out how a very valuable collection of jewels had been removed from a sealed and locked treasury overnight.  Some of it is wildly outlandish.  If I put it in a novel, you would accuse me of abdicating my responsibility to realism!

The Fifth GospelThe Fifth Gospel took a decade to write – why did it take so long?

​I made a promise to myself that this was going to be the opposite of a stock Vatican thriller.  It was going to be so minutely researched that if I handed it to a Vatican insider, he would say, “How on earth did you find out so much about this place?”  And that’s exactly what has happened.  Many members of the Catholic clergy have come to me with almost that very reaction.​

The Fifth Gospel is a thriller, also very much a book about faith – did you find the conspiracy narrative was the best way to explain theological ideas?

​The most powerful ideas I came across in my research weren’t about Vatican crimes or even the inner workings of Vatican politics​; they were about how modern Catholic priests are trained to read the Bible.  I mentioned earlier that The Fifth Gospel emerged from my curiosity about where our modern image of Jesus came from, but I was so surprised by what I found about the Catholic view of the gospels that the story evolved to include a penetrating look at how those two subjects — Christian art and modern Bible scholarship — are intertwined in a completely unexpected way.  The protagonist of the story is a young priest who is deeply faithful and also a rigorously scientific gospel scholar, a fascinating combination.

Why is the Shroud of Turin – even though it has been exposed as a fake – still such a powerful icon within the church?

​First, it’s important to note that many people dispute the radiocarbon-dating results that found the Shroud to be medieval.  No one seriously doubts that the scientists did their jobs properly, ​but there are many questions about how the cloth sample from the Shroud was taken, what it consisted of, and what extraneous materials were mixed in with it.  In other words, by the time the radiocarbon labs received their samples of the cloth, mistakes may already have been made.

Further complicating the matter, there is documentary evidence from the Middle Ages indicating that a burial-shroud relic was in existence decades before the earliest proposed date from the radiocarbon results on the Shroud of Turin.  Whether or not this was the same relic we have today is hard to say, but these documents are enough to give anyone pause.  I happen to believe the Shroud is a fake, as do many Catholics (even within the clergy), but I also found that the issue is not as clear-cut as we were led to believe when the carbon-dating was performed in 1988.  So there are many reasons the Shroud continues to draw immense crowds whenever it’s displayed.  Aside from what I’ve just mentioned, no one has satisfactorily explained how the image on it was made, at least not in a way that has gained widespread acceptance.  And there are millions of faithful for whom the verdict of science is always subject to reevaluation, while the verdict of faith has proved itself to be more immune to time.

 What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

​I never intended to spend more than a decade writing a single novel.  I deeply love this book, and I’m glad to see that it’s being acknowledged, even within the Catholic hierarchy, for accomplishing something that would’ve been impossible on the timescale of an ordinary novel.  But it also came with hardships for my family because it took so much longer than anticipated.  So by far the most difficult lesson of writing The Fifth Gospel, considering that I began as a twenty-seven-year-old bachelor and finished as a thirty-eight-year-old father of three, was that the artistic risks that are reasonable in those two stations of life are very different.  I learned the hard way that the sacrifices I had no problem embracing as a younger man now apply not just to myself but to the people I love most dearly in the world.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Writing this novel has forced me to wrestle with the question of morality in fiction.  The first time I read Tolstoy’s essay on Shakespeare, which accuses Shakespeare of being (among other forms of literary criminality) immoral, I found the accusation stodgy and easy to dismiss.  In the same way, the first time I read Dante I convinced myself that the persistent focus on judgment and moral classification was beside the point, more of an organizational scheme than an important dimension of the poetry.  On both counts, I now realize I was in error.  I’m not a practicing Christian, but the more time I spend studying literature, the more I realize that our modern secular viewpoint doesn’t have much explanatory power to reveal what some of the towering writers of the past were trying to accomplish.  So I most admire those authors whose work forces me to do better, to know more, to step beyond my modern prejudices, in order to understand them

Give me some advice about writing…

​Write about something you love, and do it in the best way you know how, so that when the hard times come and the reasonable doubts set in, the work itself is your shelter against the storm.

What’s next for you?

​I have a vast stockpile of fascinating Vatican material that didn’t make it into this novel, so I’m certainly not done with this place.  And my Rule of Four co-author and I have been hatching plans to find time for a reunion, so I wouldn’t rule out another novel from us on a non-Vatican subject!

The Fifth Gospel – Ian Caldwell

The Fifth GospelA 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.