Father Alexander is a Greek Catholic priest who lives in the Vatican with his son; his wife has gone missing. He receives a phone call from his brother Simon, a Roman Catholic (and therefore unmarried) priest who summons him to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's private gardens, where there lies the body of Ugo, a man they both worked with, who was preparing an exhibition which would authenticate the Shroud of Turin (the radiocarbon dating that exposed it as a mediaeval forgery is explained away as contamination) and reveal the Fifth Gospel. It seems that someone is prepared to kill within the Vatican in order to prevent the exhibition taking place.
This is a thriller. The plot sounds like the Da Vinci code. The conventions of the genre are observed. But...
I truly believed in these characters. The relationship between the protagonist and his son allow the author to show that violence is terrifying and destabilising. The human side of the priesthood is brilliantly shown both here and in his relationships with the other workers in the Vatican, many of them drivers or security staff or gardeners, men with whom Father Alexander grew up, men with whom he shares memories of boyhood and football and girlfriends. There is a continual concern about making ends meet in a city state where there is no tax and subsidised food but where the wages are paltry. The religious side is beautifully done as well. Father Alexander shows intense compassion and the acceptance of human frailty; it is his overwhelming love for his family that drives him to do the things he does.
There is one stunning moment in which ordinary people and theology are stupendously mixed. Father Alexander recalls a boyhood excursion to Rome to see an illegal bare knuckle fight. It is sleazy, sweaty, there is a crowd of young kids hooked on blood. "The children were stretching out their arms to touch the fighters who passed by, grabbing the hems of their shorts as if they were a disease they wanted to catch." (p 152) This is a brilliant contrast to the austere world of the Vatican, especially when it resonates with the idea of pilgrims touching relics or lepers touching the hem of Jesus' cloak. Fabulous!
- "Consciences must not get as dirty as bedrooms or dishes ... since they take much less time to clean." (p 1)
- "The darkest mistakes can be forgiven, but they can never be undone." (p 1)
- "Only at the very end of his life did he get a promotion, and it was the kind that came with wings and a harp." (p 2)
- "After Father died, she told me that it felt strange to have hands anymore, what with no one to hold them." (p 2)
- "Every Catholic boy, on the worst nights of his life, goes to bed wondering if animals like us are really worth the dirt God shaped us from." (p 3)
- "The priests reconsecrated St Peter's, the way they always do when a pilgrim jumps. But no one can reconsecrate a child." (p 10)
- "When I told Peter we were safe, I wasn't even being hopeful. I was lying." (p 58)
- "All Christians believe the business of human life is to pay down the debt on old sins." (p 61)
- "Different. He knows this word. A slinky synonym for worse." (p 89)
- "John's word true almost always means the invisible realm of the eternal." (p 121)
- "Life has taught this boy to string nets beneath his hopes." (p 184)
- "He rushes to answer the door and it's like watching a train careen into a dark tunnel." (p 264)
A brilliantly conceived thriller.
Another Vatican-based thriller is Conclave by Robert Harris.