Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thriller Time! On Child 44 and The Fifth Gospel

Plane trips are great for reading thrillers — and I rolled through two great ones in the last few weeks.

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, is about a series of child murders in 1953 Soviet Union. Our protagonist is the conflicted Leo Demidov. At the start of the novel, Demidov is a lackey of the State — he tracks down denounced "criminals" and interrogates them. That is, until a particular case gives him an attack of conscience — and circumstances beyond his control (a lecherous doctor, an ambitious subordinate) combine to cause him and his wife to lose their positions of prominence. 

Demidov is shipped off to a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he soon discovers a pattern of killings that match a murder in Moscow right before he was shipped out (and which he denied was a murder, as he had to). In the Worker's Paradise, there can't be crime — or if there is, it's immediately swept under the rug. So Demidov and his wife join forces to try to solve the serial murders of more than 50 children — but must do so on the down-low because, again, the official State position is that any crime is committed by drunks or simpletons. There's simply no motivation to do crime when life is supposed to be so peachy.

But one of the strengths of this novel is showing just how non-peachy life is in Stalinist Soviet Union. It's cold and dreary and people are always hungry and oppressed and live in fear. It's a terrifying peak behind the Iron Curtain. And it's a riveting thriller (and thankfully, the first in a trilogy). Highly recommended!

A movie adaptation of Child 44, starring Tom Hardy (as Leo) and Gary Oldman is out in late April. The trailer makes it look just as gritty and tension-filled as the book. I'm excited!


The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell, is a murder mystery, a course in Catholic history, and a treatise on biblical scholarship — the latter two of which, you'll have to trust me, are much more interesting than they might sound. The story is about two brothers — one, Alex, an Eastern Catholic priest (a small denomination of Catholicism that's sort of halfway between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) and the other, Thomas, a Roman Catholic priest. Their father had been a scholar studying the Shroud of Turin — the supposed cloth that Jesus was buried in, but which scientists had determined was a forgery.

This had destroyed their father, and ruined his dream, and he died soon after. So the boys were raised by their powerful uncle Leo. But their father also shared a dream with Pope John Paul II (the novel takes place in 2004, near the end of John Paul's papacy) to reunify the two factions of the Catholic Church. So we get a fair amount of religious history, too — including the reasons for the schism in 1054.

But so the meat the story is centered around a researcher named Ugo who says he's discovered that the scientific testing on the Shroud of Turin was wrong — and the Shroud is authentic. And he can prove it with a book called the Diatessaron that he's found in the Vatican Archives, which is basically is unified Gospel; a combination of the sometimes disparate and/or contradictory stories told in the four main gospels. But the fellow is promptly murdered before he's able to put on his exhibit in a Vatican museum, threatening the possibility for reunification of the Churches. Pope John Paul II had planned to use the exhibit as an opportunity to return the Shroud to the Eastern Orthodox church as a sign of good faith.

So our two priests — the older brother, Father Thomas, is actually accused of Ugo's murder and held secretly somewhere in Vatican City, and our narrator is the younger brother, Father Alex — is trying to solve the crime, as well as determine what exactly Ugo was up to, who is trying stop him, and why.

If you've spent any time in Catholic school, or just have an interest in religious history, this is a novel for you. It reads like a Dan Brown book, only much better written, and not nearly as "thriller cliche" as Brown's books are.

1 comment:

  1. OOoh Child 44 looks soo good! I like thrillers if they are smartly written and well-edited. I've read several of Dan Brown's books, and the Vatican secrets trope kinda got old.