In 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 at a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of Rome. That 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 by someone with a vested stake in the exhibit—someone he must outwit to survive.
I have read all of the Dan Brown books. I read all the books the pre-dated Dan Brown, such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and David Morrell’s The Fraternity of the Stone, and many more that fed my insatiable appetite for the great religious mystery and thriller of what happened to the great relics of Christ. Even Ian’s first novel, The Rule of Four ranked as one of the more tantalizing works that sent me seeking for more info and left me with more questions than answers at the end. Some of the best of these books left me wondering just how much access they were able to acquire to the great vaulted and guarded stacks of the Vatican Library. Others reached so far into the improbable, that they pushed even “literary license” to its’ limit.
The Fifth Gospel was a book that, according to Ian Caldwell, was ten years in the making. The journey took many turns and twists and hit many snags as he struggled to bring the tomb to production. It is my humble opinion that his labor was not in vain. I could not put the book down. We are talking about my most revered subgenre of subgenre. I read every archeology journal article, every book on every new finding, anything new I come across about the subject of the historical Christ and what new has been discovered in an archeological dig, or buried in a library.
This all aside, Mr. Caldwell took the premise of the story back in time to just before Pope John Paul’s death. His greatest wish was to bring the two great churches back together again – The Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. This story is told through the eyes of two brothers who worked at the Vatican. Both brothers were of Greek descent. One brother had converted to Roman Catholicism. The second brother was part of a very little known small group of priests in the church who are married and who are Greek Catholic priests. These two brothers and a lay museum curator become the nucleus around which there is a great secret that can make or break John Paul’s great hope for the Church before he dies.
What can they know or find in the process of preparing for a great Vatican Museum show that would rock the Church world and could cost people their lives? In the process, Ian lays out the beautiful story of the Shroud of Turin. New details that I have never heard before are revealed in the story…how much of this is factual? How much is literary creation?
As an “outsider”, I do not claim to know and understand the workings of the Catholic Church, nor its politics. But will attest to the fact that not all Men-of-God are Godly men (nor on the other hand are all Godly men, Men-of-God). The trappings and robes that one must wear does not speak of the heart of the man beneath the robe. This does not hold true for just the Catholic Church, but for all organized religion, in general. Even with this knowledge, it was not much assurance or help, as you tried to figure out who the bad guys were, or if there were bad guys as you careened through the pages of the novel. Even with this seeming subterfuge and mafia style activity going on, you never felt like anyone was taking potshots at the Vatican. This small kingdom just happened to be the location of this top rate action thriller, and because of its’ location, the fever pitch went up a notch or two.
The sub-narrative and story is a wonderful touching story of the young priest who is trying to raise his four year old son on his own inside the Vatican grounds after his wife abandoned them shortly after the birth of his son. One never thinks of the idea of a family growing up inside the Vatican. But I was taken in by the simple scenes of a stressed and exhausted father sitting over a very late supper table with a son who is happy to eat the pro-offered bowl of cereal and milk for his supper, while he tries to explain why his uncle is not coming home tonight. The sweet innocence of the child juxtaposed against the terrorizing battle going on in the mind of the “father” of the child sitting next to him at the table…in the safety of the Vatican. Layers on layers on layers.
Ian took the time and care to develop his characters. His central characters had layers to them like an onion. Just as you thought you had a character figured out, you discovered you had him wrong. He paid just as close attention to the supporting characters. The plot and sub-plot to the story were so entwined, that it took a while to realize that there were actually two plots and three story lines. Ian just kept taking the reader back to the table. We had to look at the facts again and again, each time we would see something new had been added or had been missed.
Like the intimate touches of the kitchen scene, it was the minute details of the novel that make the book so believable. You can get the sense and feeling of living in the hallowed space of the most Hallowed kingdom on earth.
I would give this work a well earned FIVE STAR rating. In the fast paced competative world of cutting edge religious thrillers, Ian has shown his mettle and has earned the right to challenge the wits of the most ardent literary thrill seeker.
A copy of The Fifth Gospel was provided to Shade Tree Book Reviews and Blog in exchange for a book review.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ian Caldwell is the coauthor of The Rule of Four, which spent forty-nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, sold nearly 2 million copies in North America, and was translated into thirty-five languages. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children.