The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell © 2015 Simon & Schuster

This book was ten years in the making. They should have spent another ten minutes on the title, because the story has nothing to do with the fifth gospel of Tatian. Oh, it’s mentioned, but the story hinges on the already-biblical Gospel of John. The plot revolves around a great secret revolving around the Shroud of Turin. The keeper of the great secret, Father Ugo Nogara, is found dead at the Vatican, and Western Catholic Father Simon Andreou is falsely (maybe) accused of Nogara’s murder. Simon’s brother, the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Father Alex Andreou, sets out to clear Simon’s name, whether Simon wants him to or not.

That was the first problem. Co-hero Simon didn’t care about his fate, so neither did I. The second problem was Nogara being a drunken, two-faced jerk I didn’t really mind taking a bullet. Co-hero, Alex was a reasonably likeable fellow trying to piece his family back together while trying to piece together what all Simon and Nogara had lied to him about. Which was problem number three—the main character’s quest was to help characters who came across more like villains. I didn’t care if Alex vindicated Simon or not.

Fifth did present an interesting twist about the shroud’s true origin and how that truth could impact the pope’s attempt to heal a Western-Eastern Catholic schism. If the story had been only about that, and not tried to be a Cossack-clad James Bond caper, it would have been a lot better. Leave the Vatican cloak and dagger stuff to the symbologists.

Problem four—the plot only works if you take it as common knowledge that John is full of shit as compared to his fellow Gospelers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I’ve never heard that. Maybe it’s common knowledge among Gospel scholars, but that’s a really targeted audience.

The fifth problem was a plot hole you could drive the popemobile through. Nogara set out to prove the shroud’s carbon-dating to a thousand-plus years after Christ’s entombment was flawed, and that the shroud really was Christ’s burial garment. See, Medieval nuns re-wove parts of the shroud, so it could have been the re-weaving material that was carbon-dated. So, Nogara uses inconsistencies in the Gospel of John to prove the shroud’s true age? Uh, why not just carbon-date other parts of the shroud? Nogara deserved to be shot for being stupid.

With books, “ten years in the making” is a red flag, not a credential. It means (trust me, from experience) the essential story has big problems. The subject matter of Caldwell’s Fifth is pretty obscure and unimportant to the average reader, and his main character is not personally imperiled. Alex’s conflicts were vicarious, through Simon and Nogara, neither of whom were very likeable. It wasn’t awful, but it didn’t move me. I cast Fifth into frightwrite’s recycling bin Hell. Forgive me, O Lord.

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