Simon & Schuster, March 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
What does it mean to be “literary”? Sure, the dictionary will tell you that the word literary is an adjective meaning something concerning the writing and/or study of literature. But what about when the word is a modifier, such as in “literary thriller”? It seems the word is used to imply a degree of respect, as in “literary fiction” is more respected than “commercial fiction” or “thrillers” without the prefix of “literary.” Literary means a work of art, not a commodity. So here’s my next question: can a commodity be a masterpiece, or must a masterpiece be a work of art?
I’m asking because I’m trying to figure out how to understand Ian Caldwell’s much-awaited second novel, The Fifth Gospel, which is described by the people promoting the book as both a “literary thriller” and “a masterpiece.” The novel takes place in Vatican City and aims to uncover secrets of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the Church’s troubled relationship with the Eastern Orthodox community, the controversial history of the Shroud of Turin, and the Diatessaron—the mythical “fifth gospel” that combines the four canonical gospels into one harmonious story (which mostly means deleting the anachronistic passages of the gospel of John).
Caldwell’s protagonist is Alex, an Eastern Catholic—that is, loyal to the Pope but Greek in practice, bearded, and allowed to marry before taking priestly vows. His wife left him to raise their son alone, so he’s the only ordained single father in the Vatican. His father and brother Simon are also priests, and their mission has always been to reunite the Eastern and Western Churches. The Fifth Gospel is a thriller, and thrillers rely on a mystery. The mystery begins when Alex gets a phone call from Simon, who happens to be with the dead body of the man planning an exhibit of both the Shroud of Turin and the Diatessaron. Who killed him and why? And why is Simon involved?
Adding all of this together, we might tend to think of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. But a blurb from David Baldacci (whoever that is) specifically tells us not to think of The Da Vinci Code. Instead, the book’s editor encourages an association with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. And so, to answer my earlier questions, I’ll pose another: why Eco and not Brown? Because Eco is considered to be smart, and Brown isn’t. The Name of the Rose can be considered a masterpiece, but no one would suggest the same epithet for The Da Vinci Code. Last time I checked, the latter had sold upwards of 55 million copies, so it’s a blockbuster. The Da Vinci Code is not considered a masterpiece because, unlike The Name of the Rose, it’s too dumbed-down to be considered “literary.” That is to say, it’s not a work of art.
Now, is The Fifth Gospel dumbed-down? Sure. A bit. Is it smart? It isn’t. But if you want to sell a shit-ton of books, best not to be too smart. Best not to be too artistic. Better to be clever. Better to be crafty. Better to be page-turning plot-heavy. The Fifth Gospel is all of these things. Clever, crafty, page-turning plot-heavy. It can’t be considered a masterpiece, then. But is it good? Sure. Did I easily read it within a few days? I did. And, when it comes down to it, isn’t that all that matters? Maybe it is.