“The Fifth Gospel” Ian Caldwell (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Fifth Gospel Ian Caldwell book cover

Set in 2004 when the dying wish of Pope John Paul II was to reunite Catholicism and Orthodoxy. An exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums but, before it is opened, the curator is discovered dead from a gunshot wound. The curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest, discovers a break-in at his home that appears to be linked to the curator’s death. To complicate matters, the obvious suspect is his brother, Father Simon Andreou, a Western Catholic priest.

Father Alex had been stuck in a kind of limbo, single-handedly raising his son after his wife Mona left. (Later readers discover that post-natal depression seems to have triggered her departure. This information should have been included sooner because it leaves Mona as a malign mystery hovering over the early chapters.) Father Alex doesn’t believe Father Simon killed the curator and when the gendarmes reach an impasse, Father Simon is put under house arrest at an unknown location and the decision is taken that he will be tried under Canonical Law rather than criminal law. This won’t be a ponderous, lengthy process as the trial has to be completed before the exhibit is due to open, giving the plot an urgency. Father Alex has to turn detective. He knows the curator was researching the four Gospels plus the little-known Diatessaron, also known as the fifth Gospel, to uncover what they revealed about the Turin Shroud so he tries to reconstruct the research in order to try and find out what the curator had discovered and the consequences of that discovery for the world’s two largest Christian churches. In his research, he discovers that Father Simon had been secretly travelling to Eastern European countries to invite Orthodox clergy to the exhibit. When crucial evidence that would exonerate Father Simon is left dumped in a secure car part and excluded from the court, Father Alex realises his brother is caught up in a conspiracy to prevent information from the Diatessaron from coming to light. It trying to clear his brother’s name, Father Alex doesn’t realise that the evidence is pointing towards him as the guilty party.

Despite their separation, can both brothers somehow protect each other and uncover the truth or will they find themselves scapegoated by internal political struggles left by bishops jockeying for position under an ailing Pope? Can they protect Pope John Paul II’s wish against those seeking to keep the schism?

Fathers Simon and Alex are sympathetically drawn: two priests on different paths seeking to enable the Pope’s dying wish. Simon is an active man who prefers to do rather than think but feels a fatherly responsibility towards his younger brother. Alex is a scholar and a teacher trying to do the best for his own son, Peter, and trying to protect him from the gossip that implies his favourite uncle is a murderer. However, in his attempts to protect Peter, Alex prevents him giving a key piece of evidence that Peter was eyewitness to. In a moment of frustration, Peter blurts it out and Alex realises his mistake.

It’s a scholarly thriller as well as a detective one in a world where hierarchy and appeasement matter. As readers follow Father Alex’s research, prior knowledge of the Bible or the texts Father Alex studies is not required. Father Alex is a teacher and in that role explained to the curator what their research was uncovering and put it in context of the teachings of the Church. The reader is given the same clues as Father Alex and the key to the mystery does not lie in some elaborate, obscure research but in a letter from the curator to Father Alex.

Life in the Vatican is a very regimented one where everyone is treated according to rank. It’s also a very male world, which is why the lack of information and explanation around Mona’s disappearance and separation from Father Alex is frustrating: as one of the very few women in the book her words and actions are amplified. Her sole purpose seems to have been to emphasise the isolation Father Alex feels as the hunt for truth is underway. Mona’s role as plot device is further underline by her relatively trouble-free reunite with Father Alex and her son. Meanwhile the court’s attempt to establish the truth is frustrated by witnesses, who have taken an oath to a high-ranking bishop, being unable to break that oath to give evidence. Eventually it takes the intervention of the Pope to uncover the truth and both Father Alex and Father Simon discover the crime at the heart of the matter is worse, in the Church’s eyes, than the murder it seemed to be.

“The Fifth Gospel” is an intelligent thriller that makes the best use of its setting and theme without excluding a general reader looking for a pacey murder mystery.

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