Wednesday, January 13, 2016

"Acts of the Assassins" by Richard Beard

 Amazon link

So here's an interesting idea. The death of Jesus as a police procedural, updated to a twenty first century Roman Empire. Reviewer Declan Burke writes:
"Gallio is a Speculator – investigator – with the Jerusalem division of the Complex Cases Unit (CCU), an elite department of the Roman military police. The missing body is that of local mystic rabble-rouser Jesus, who was executed by crucifixion only days before. Jesus’ corpse has since gone missing from its tomb, and Gallio – who was charged with overseeing the execution, as a punishment detail for cocking up his investigation into the apparently miraculous resurrection of Lazarus only a few weeks beforehand – can’t afford to allow another stain on his career record.

"A hard-headed veteran, Gallio refuses to believe the rumours being circulated by Jesus’ disciples. “What it can’t possibly be, and what he refuses to contemplate, is died, risen, coming again.” Having witnessed Jesus’ agonies and death on the cross with his own eyes, “Gallio bans all discussion of resurrection as a potential line of enquiry,” and sets out to interrogate the disciples to get at the truth of how they managed to pull off the magnificent trick of stealing Jesus’ body away from a sealed tomb. "
" ... the story takes place in a contemporary setting, complete with modern weaponry, travel and attitudes towards terrorism ... a perspective that allows the reader to experience ancient history unfolding in the here-and-now (the origin of the great fire that devastated Rome is referred to as ‘Ground Zero’; Jesus’ Second Coming is taken to mean a spectacular terrorist attack at the heart of the empire).

"It’s a thrilling inventive approach, albeit one leavened by Beard’s slyly absurdist sense of humour. “Whatever the destination is,” Gallio declares as he flies to Antioch from Jerusalem via Amsterdam, “there’s always a change at Schipol.”
Beard is an unusually inventive writer who can disorientate and confuse. The Guardian notes:
"In The Cartoonist, Beard used an artificial, Oulipo-type constraint to illustrate a real-life constraint on the imagination: he wrote an entire novel set in EuroDisney, submitted the text to a libel lawyer, then rewrote the novel from beginning to end, following the lawyer’s instructions to the letter to avoid the risk of defamation. Sometimes, the games that texts are instructed to play are in deadly seriousness."
In this book there are 'continuity errors' which seemed at first to be sub-editing mistakes. The disciples are interrogated by police amidst mausoleums depicting their grisly deaths as ancient history; one surveillance scene shifts inexplicably from the middle of the night to the following evening with no explanation; why would you fly from Antioch to Jerusalem via Schiphol?

I guess if I knew what postmodern was, it wouldn't be, but I do rather draw the line at 'quantum fiction' (Mr Beard, you know who you are).

The Guardian has a good, context-setting review here (the novel appears to have been ignored by the other broadsheets). It's a page-turner, an enhanced experience if you know your New Testament and Acts of the Apostles.

I'm not sure the tricksy stuff entirely does what what I assume the author is trying for - dreamy and disorientating? - but it doesn't derail, just means you have to reflect sometimes rather than just let the narrative sweep you along.

As in many SF stories and thrillers, the narrative tilts just slightly too much to plot vs. characterisation. The main protagonists: Gallia, Valeria, Claudia and Baruch, are real people - I would have liked to have known them a little better.

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