The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne (2006)
Will Monroe is a half-English, half-American journalist, raised mostly by his mother in England after his parents split up. After studying at Oxford, he goes to the land of his father (a judge) to be a post-grad at Columbia and then work for the New York Times. A reporting assignment on a seemingly routine murder in a dodgy part of Manhattan takes on a new angle when someone has something good to say about the victim, a pimp who on one occasion pawned most of his possessions in order to give money to a woman who would otherwise have become a prostitute. For his next assignment, Will’s off to the Pacific Northwest to report on some flooding although he ends up reporting on another murder – this time a survivalist nutter in Montana who, it turns out, had previously donated one of his kidneys anonymously. Although they were rather unsavoury characters, both victims had performed selfless acts of generosity that led them to be described as ‘righteous’. Then Will’s wife gets abducted. This leads him into the world of the insular Hasidic Jewish community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he’s introduced to an old Jewish legend about the well-being of the world being held up by thirty-six ‘righteous’ men who can exist anywhere in the world, and who often try to shield their inherent good nature; when one dies, a new one is born and so there are always thirty-six men making sure that the rest of us are OK. Trouble is, someone’s figured out who they are and is trying to murder them all between the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in order to bring about the end of the world. This is the premise at the heart of The Righteous Men, a sub-Da Vinci Code thriller by Jonathan Freedland, a Guardian journalist writing under the somewhat Dan Brown-esque pseudonym of Sam Bourne. Will is aided by two friends, a computer geek and an ex-girlfriend called TC who he initially goes to because he needs to understand more about Judaism and she’s the only Jewish person he knows, but it just so happens that she was raised in Crown Heights before leaving that life behind to become a highly intelligent if slightly kooky artist (here I started to feel that the old Buchan rule about ‘shockers’ marching just within the bounds of the possible was being not so much stretched to the limit as broken). Amid a rising body-count, Will and TC try to figure out what’s going on via a series of cryptic text-messages sent by a person unknown (they think it’s someone Will met from within the Hasidic community, but after he gets killed the messages keep coming so it must be someone else). When the twists eventually come, they’re rather predicable but by this point I was over half-way through so I felt I had to carry on to the end – this is the sort of novel in which you just know that the people who Will initially thinks are behind the murders can’t possibly be the actual people responsible, and the climactic reveal of the Leigh Teabing figure who’s the evil genius behind it all doesn’t really come as much of a surprise, to be honest. Perhaps ‘generic’ is the word I’m looking for here, and at well over 500 pages it’s a tad over-long too. Would I be interested in anything else that this author has to offer? Probably not.
Shattered Icon by Bill Napier (2003)
Harry Blake is an antiquarian book-seller in Lincoln whose usual dull routine is interrupted by Sir Toby Tebbit, a minor aristocrat with whom he’s had dealings in the past, coming to him with an old manuscript that he’s inherited from a distant relative in Jamaica of whose existence he’d been unaware. As to the content of the manuscript, it’s been written in some sort of code. Unfortunately, some bad people are after said manuscript and will stop at nothing to get hold of it – before long, Sir Toby is dead (not by natural causes) and Harry becomes a fugitive as he tries to decode the manuscript with the help of Zola, an old friend of his (and an expert in maritime history, no less). As it gradually gets decoded, the manuscript becomes the story-within-the-story, relating to the adventures of a low-born but well-educated Scotsman called James Ogilvie who went to London and ended up as a sailor on the ill-fated Roanaoke expedition – a real-life unsuccessful early attempt to establish an English colony in what’s now North Carolina during the reign of Elizabeth I. It turns out, though, that there was an ulterior motive behind establishing said colony – all to do with a new calendar devised by the mathematician/astrologer/alchemist John Dee (an alternative to the Gregorian one; Dee, an advisor to Elizabeth I, really did come up with a Protestant alternative calendar although it was never implemented) which somehow required someone to be at the 77 degrees west line of longitude even though no-one knew how to figure out longitude back then. Into this mix is added a secret plot by England’s Catholics to wreck the whole thing, this act coinciding (they hope) with a successful outcome of the plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne. An ancient religious icon (a piece of wood that everyone believes to be a fragment of the cross on which Jesus was crucified) is at the heart of the mystery. Back in the present day, Harry and Zola are joined by Sir Toby’s daughter Debbie on a trip to Jamaica which becomes a race to find the icon before the afore-mentioned bad people – a group of decidedly nutty but seriously violent religious fanatics who are plotting an all-out religious war – can get their hands on it. At times, the plot twists are a tad eccentric, but they stretch rather than break the Buchan rule in the way that thrillers do these days thanks to Dan Brown even if this book, while being quite fun to read, wasn’t quite up to that standard. I did wonder if Napier had originally intended this to be an Elizabethan adventure, only for him to turn this into a story within a modern-day framework narrative, what with the prospect of religious war being a topical theme in the post-9/11 world and a modern plot concerning an ancient religious legend or (in this case) item being topical too in the early-to-mid-2000s thanks to The Da Vinci Code (which was published in the same year as Shattered Icon which, by the way, was published as Splintered Icon in the USA which makes more sense given what said icon is). But hey, it had me glued to the point where I was reading it into the wee small hours which is always a good sign where novels are concerned (assuming, of course, that I was genuinely interested and not just unable to sleep, not that I was really in a position to make a judgement call on that as it was too late, or rather too early, at the time). I was, though, amused to discover a discrete reference to Buchan himself amid the excitement – James, our Scottish Elizabethan sailor, hails from a Lowland village called Tweedsmuir, which was the title Buchan took when he was elevated to the peerage.
The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell (2016)
I’d not previously heard of Ian Caldwell, and to be honest I only really picked up this book because it wasn’t long after I’d finished Conclave by Robert Harris (which I enjoyed right up to the last plot-twist, which I felt took things a step too far than they perhaps should have gone, violating the Buchan rule but not as much as Sam Bourne did) and quite fancied another Vatican-based thriller. This one doesn’t involve a papal conclave but I was intrigued by the information provided by the blurb on the back which stated that the protagonist is a Greek Catholic (Eastern liturgy but part of the worldwide Catholic church) priest who lives in the Vatican; that genuinely intrigued me. So – The Fifth Gospel. It is 2004. A mysterious exhibit is being planned in the Vatican Museum, but with a week to go before it opens the exhibit’s curator gets murdered at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence outside Rome. At the same time, the Vatican apartment of the victim’s one-time research partner is broken into. Said one-time research partner is our protagonist (and also narrator), Father Alex Angelou, who takes it upon himself to investigate who’s behind the murder and the break-in; also, his brother, who was largely responsible for his upbringing, has vanished and he reckons (correctly) that this is not coincidental. The brother, Simon, is also a priest – albeit a Roman Catholic, not a Greek Catholic, one (their family is of a mixed religious heritage; their father was a Greek Catholic priest, while on their mother’s side Uncle Lucio is a Roman Catholic cardinal). Thus are two brothers shown as a microcosm of the split in Christendom between Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that forms the backdrop of this novel which also takes in the titular fifth gospel – a work known as the Diatessaron which combines elements of the four gospels and which the curator had been studying in some depth – and its links to a certain controversial holy relic. Father Alex’s quest for the truth takes him to all corners of the Vatican, including one memorable scene in the underground car park where he has to hide in the Popemobile! Admittedly that part sounds a bit ludicrous, but believe me Caldwell pulls off the trick of making it sound just about plausible or, if you prefer, within the bounds of the possible. This is compelling stuff, with Caldwell not just providing us with a highly believable murder mystery which is also religious thriller which has an interesting protagonist (Father Alex), in addition to which there’s a vivid picture of the insular world of the Vatican at the time when John Paul II’s papacy was drawing to a close (the ailing Pope himself is an unseen character until very late on, which works well). Even the persistent use of the present tense, which I sometimes find annoying, seems to work well here, and it definitely passed the reading-into-the-small-hours test. Out of the three books I’m looking at here, this is the one I would recommend the most, by some considerable distance.