The Fifth Gospel | Ian Caldwell | 2015 | Simon & Schuster | 431p | Bought copy | Buy the book
The year is 2004 and Pope John Paul II is reaching the end of his life. His work, though, is not yet done. An exhibition unlike any previously held in the Vatican is about to open. It is expected to cause a stir, if not a quake, across the Christian world. But with just one week to go before the exhibition’s opening, its curator Ugo Nogara is shot dead within the gardens of Castel Gandolfo, a papal palace just outside Rome. On the scene are two brothers, drawn from different paths of Catholicism – the Roman Catholic priest Simon Andreou and Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest. Both priests find themselves caught up in the murder investigation and both have to deal with the loss of a man who had been a good friend – until the demands of the exhibition changed everything. Alex is committed to finding out the identity of Ugo’s murderer, resisting the danger that this brings on himself and those he loves. The investigation takes Alex into the heart of Vatican City, an enclave overflowing with secrets, mysterious conventions and codes, and laced with private tunnels, chambers and archives.
The murder of Ugo Nogara begins The Fifth Gospel but there is much, much more to this clever, beautifully-written, ‘gentle’ thriller than that. This isn’t a police procedural, nor does it present the hunt for a serial killer on the loose. Instead, The Fifth Gospel is as much about families and faith as it is about a mysterious death and the ensuing intellectual puzzle.
The setting is vividly portrayed. We are taken into the heart of the Vatican, a place so familiar to tourists and yet so hidden from public view. This is a place where space is at a premium. Archaeological ruins are destroyed to make way for carparks, people of religious and administrative office live and work almost on top of each other in apartment and office blocks, privacy is unlikely, while in the centre hides the home of the Pope himself. Decisions are made by arcane bodies which also have the authority to try a man for murder. Such trials take place in a court in which only judges can ask questions and where the Pope can veto any evidence or any line of questioning he chooses. But what is it that the Pope and his archbishops and cardinals are trying to hide? What was the exhibition about to reveal? And does the Pope have as much control as he thinks?
Father Alex Andreou is thrown into this world, confusing even for him despite the fact that he lives within the Vatican walls. But Alex is no ordinary priest. As a Greek Catholic priest he was entitled to marry before his ordination. He did so and now, separated from his wife, he lives with his five year old son Peter. This young child lives an extraordinary life, part raised by nuns, influenced by his great uncle Lucio, one of the most important figures in the Vatican, and loved and adored by his priest father and his priest uncle Simon. We see a fascinating Vatican through the story of our narrator, Father Alex, but we see another side to it completely through the experiences of this child. Peter is one of my favourite child figures in a novel. He is enchanting and portrayed with such delicacy and care. There are moments when this boy has to deal with much he shouldn’t have to, including the absence of his mother and the risk of losing his father and uncle. Alex’s investigations into Ugo’s murderer put himself and his child in danger and Ian Caldwell reveals the effects of this on the young boy perfectly and very poignantly. I was a blathering mess through a fair bit of this when reading it. Quite apart from the danger aspect, Peter valiantly struggles to deal with the relationship between his father and mother. For me, this is the finest part of The Fifth Gospel – this is a truly tender novel.
Faith plays an equally important role. It won’t come as any surprise to learn that the exhibition is designed to raise questions that some might not want to face. Through detailed analyses of Gospels – including a newly discovered Fifth Gospel – Alex and Ugo are able to throw light on far more than that great (and controversial) relic of the Turin Shroud. The intellectual puzzle is clearly presented and is fascinating. It isn’t treated in a sensationalist manner. This novel is far too thoughtful for that.
The Fifth Gospel immerses us in a world that at times seems entirely strange. Religious faith, symbolised by St Peter’s, goes hand in hand with Vatican politics. Part of the novel takes place in the Vatican courtroom where revelations and shocks compete with the unfamiliarity of this type of trial. The mood of the novel is often sinister and frightening. There is a sense that everyone is being watched, that anyone can be controlled. But there is also, despite it all, a powerful feeling of faith and goodness. The ailing figure of John Paul II exists in the shadows, revered, loved and still very powerful, legends growing about his earlier years. But shining through all this is the love of young Peter for his father and family, a love that one feels outweighs everything else. The Fifth Gospel took the author ten years to research and write. It is written carefully and its pace is gentle. It didn’t give me what I was expecting but I soon realised that it’s the richer for it.