I decided to pick up The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell because I’d read The Rule of Four, which Caldwell co-wrote with Dustin Thomason, a while back and really enjoyed it. And Caldwell definitely didn’t fail me with The Fifth Gospel. The quick review? I enjoyed it. A lot.
Here’s what it’s about:
In 2004, as Pope John Paul II’s reign enters its twilight, a mysterious exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums. A week before it is scheduled to open, its curator is murdered at a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of Rome. That same night, a violent break-in rocks the home of the curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest who lives inside the Vatican with his five-year-old son. When the papal police fail to identify a suspect in either crime, Father Alex, desperate to keep his family safe, undertakes his own investigation. To find the killer he must reconstruct the dead curator’s secret: what the four Christian gospels—and a little-known, true-to-life fifth gospel known as the Diatessaron—reveal about the Church’s most controversial holy relic. But just as he begins to understand the truth about his friend’s death and its consequences for the future of the world’s two largest Christian Churches, Father Alex finds himself hunted down by someone with a vested stake in the exhibit—someone he must outwit to survive.
Readers who see the title The Fifth Gospel might, understandably, think the novel is a Da Vinci Code kind of read. It isn’t. Sure, there’s a lost gospel and an ancient holy relic, but the similarities end there. If you’ve read any of Dan Brown’s novels, you’ll know they clip along at near-breakneck speeds. They are definitely fast rides, and the thrill is entirely in the plot.
The Fifth Gospel, while highly readable and entertaining, has so much more. In addition to the lost gospel and the ancient, controversial holy relic, there’s also a murder mystery and a lot of Vatican politics and intrigue. And at its core, the novel is the story of two brothers, one a Roman Catholic priest, the other a Greek Catholic priest with a five-year-old son.
While definitely a page turner—it is, after all, a thriller—the writing has a literary feel to it. There are some beautifully written passages throughout. This, for example, on the gravity of a priest being laicized: “This is what gives the sentence such power: it turns us into ghosts. It obligates the world to deny our existence.”
In the Acknowledgments, Caldwell notes it took him ten years to write the novel, and the extensive research he performed is something that takes the book to a whole other level. There’s no info dump going on here; details are revealed to us within the lives of the characters and the setting in which they live. We become immersed in the world of the Vatican, that small, walled country so few of us know anything about.
I learned a lot about so many things: ways of reading the gospels, the rift between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the Eastern Catholics, how the Vatican is run. Yet I didn’t realize I was learning these things until after I finished the book, because none of it is fed to us as information. It all forms a solid part of the story itself.
If you like a thriller or mystery that does more than drive you quickly through the pages, you should definitely add The Fifth Gospel to your to-read list.