Acts of the Assassins
Harvell Secker £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT534)
ACTS OF THE ASSASSINS is Richard Beard’s second fiction inspired by the New Testament. The first, Lazarus is Dead (Books, 16 December 2011), was about the way Jesus and Lazarus lived parallel lives. This second novel is about the fate of the Twelve Apostles.
Gallio is a member of the Complex Casework Unit, a “Speculator”, a Roman expert in counter-terrorism. He is the one who organises the crucifixion, but then everything goes wrong. The body of Jesus vanishes, and the double agent Judas, who had been working for Gallio, seemingly commits suicide. Gallio is exiled to Moldova.
Years later, as one Apostle keeps on dying after another, the case is reopened, and Gallio is recalled. But this time the serial killing of the Apostles, and the still unexplained fate of the body of Jesus, pushes Gallio to his uttermost limit.
This book is remarkably clever. Jerusalem, we are told, is where past and present meet, and the novel accordingly is both in Ancient Rome and the here and now, the time of the Early Church, and a time when the cult of the saints is centuries old. This leads to some agreeable jokes. While Paul gives lectures and holds conferences in five-star hotels, the other apostles are a bunch of do-gooders inhabiting Third World hellholes. But, as they are bumped off in bizarre ways, one by one, the plot becomes increasingly threadbare.
Who is doing the killing? Is it Paul, jealously trying to impose his own agenda and get rid of the other witnesses? Is it the Romans? Is it Jesus himself? Did he wake up in the tomb? Was someone else crucified in his place?
The Paul-as-true-founder-of-Christianity shtick is familiar; and the idea that the disciples stole the body is as old as the Gospels themselves.
The final denouement does not quite make up for the increasingly tedious series of deaths. Writing about the Bible has a long history, but this book comes up with nothing new.