Tag Archives: The Prisoner

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.

Pines – Blake Crouch

Pines - Blake CrouchWith M Night Shymalayan’s television adaptation of Blake Crouch’s Pines trilogy of books just around the corner, I thought I’d take a gander at one of the books that’s been languishing on my device for an awful long time.

If you’re a genre purist, then this is probably not the book, TV series, for you. It starts off as a straightforward thriller – a Secret Service agent wakes up, disorientated on the verge of a road outside a picturesque Idaho town (ah, what would thriller writers do without amnesia?) – and then becomes increasingly barmy.

The blurb has just arrived in town and is looking to meet new people:

Secret service agent Ethan Burke arrives in Wayward Pines, Idaho, with a clear mission: locate and recover two federal agents who went missing in the bucolic town one month earlier. But within minutes of his arrival, Ethan is involved in a violent accident. He comes to in a hospital, with no ID, no cell phone, and no briefcase.

The medical staff seems friendly enough, but something feels…off. As the days pass, Ethan’s investigation into the disappearance of his colleagues turns up more questions than answers. Why can’t he get any phone calls through to his wife and son in the outside world? Why doesn’t anyone believe he is who he says he is? And what is the purpose of the electrified fences surrounding the town?

Are they meant to keep the residents in? Or something else out? Each step closer to the truth takes Ethan further from the world he thought he knew, from the man he thought he was, until he must face a horrifying fact—he may never get out of Wayward Pines alive.

Pines is a mash-up of movie and TV references. There are strands of The Prisoner and Lost and Twin Peaks in its DNA – Crouch said he always wanted to write his own version of Lynch’s iconic drama with its sinister picket-fence imagery – and Stepford and Buck Rogers and The Truman Show, and even Shymalayan’s own movie The Village. It’s a thriller, a frontier western and, ultimately, a science-fiction opus.

It’s all a bit daft, but hugely readable, because Pines is fast and frenetic and never lets up. Crouch quickly takes Ethan on the run. Trouble is, he’s unable to get out of town, thanks to all the electric fences and roads that bend in on themselves and two impenetrable cliff faces that loom over Pines.

At one point, he’s literally hunted by every citizen in the town – all the men, all the old ladies and the children, who want to smash his head in – so, wait, there’s a bit of The Wicker Man in there, too. One of the joys of the book is the fact that Ethan is a tenacious but vulnerable leading man, and gets the shit kicked out of him on a pretty regular basis.

Crouch powers the intriguing narrative by dangling questions  on a stick. On every page, questions, questions, questions, dangle, dangle, dangle. If there’s one thing that keep us turning pages in any thriller, it’s wanting to know the answer to the damned questions. What happened to Ethan’s secret service colleagues? Why is the sound of locusts pumped into the town by a sound system? Because those questions have more layers than Mary Berry’s battenburg, you keep reading. Crouch knows to leave the final reveal for as long as he can. For any would-be genre writer Pines is a terrific example on how to play kicky-up with the mystery of your central concept.

At the end you have to take a very deep breath – I suggest you practice a few yoga relaxation techniques – to swallow Crouch’s hugely audacious answer to all these myriad questions. I mean, it helps if you love all those series and movies I’ve mentioned. Wait! Westworld – that’s another one, with its hidden subterranean corridors and fluorescents.

But if you’re the kind of person who loves elaborate sci-fi conspiracies then you’ll be more than happy. The subsequent books are more contemplative and delve deeper into the weird town of Pines, a small slice of Americana that is both dystopia and nirvana.

Pines is High Concept with a vengeance. If ever there was an idea stripped down to its jockeys ready for television to come batting its eyelids, it’s this one.