I was emailing someone today about what constitutes a crime novel, as you do, and I offered up my theory, which runneth thusly: If you can take out the criminality and the story still works, then it’s not a crime novel. And vice versa, obviously. Which means, as I’ve said before, that the likes of Hamlet, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, Oedipus, THE UNTOUCHABLE, and – if you want to piss off Declan Hughes – THE GREAT GATSBY are all crime novels. THE TRIAL is an exception to this rule, having no crime but being a superb crime novel all the same.
Anyway, that got me thinking – who’s the most famous criminal of all time? I’m guessing Jesus, from a story point of view at least, given that he was crucified for being found guilty on a charge of sedition, although whether you believe the sedition was of the secular or religious variety is up to you. Crucifixion, as you probably already know, was the form of execution the Romans reserved for common criminals, although that does beg the question of why, if he was considered important enough to try and execute for sedition, Jesus would have been considered a common criminal.
Either way, crucifixion was / is a horrible way to die, and might be an interesting place to start a novel. Also, Jerusalem at the time was a city of political and religious intrigue, a city fermenting in the kind of passions that would see catastrophe visited on it in the very near future. And it’s true that if you take the crime out of the New Testament the story collapses – without a crime to be arrested for, Jesus cannot be tried and executed.
I think the legal aspect of it is interesting. If the authorities wanted Jesus done away with, they could have had him bumped off quietly, and the body disposed of, as Nikos Kazantstakis suggests early on in THE LAST TEMPTATION, when Judas visits Jesus in the desert with the intention of slitting his throat. But the authorities, secular or religious, were so keen to go by the book that Jesus found himself shuttled back and forth between various institutions, each one hoping that another would be the one to find him guilty of a crime.
Anyway, Jesus was killed. Shortly afterwards, his body went missing from a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers. At this point – and this is where the novel I’m thinking about gets interesting, to me anyway – all of those responsible, directly or indirectly, start worrying about who has stolen away the body, and why. Concerned about the propaganda value of the corpse, and particularly that of a vanished corpse, the various authorities need to discover (a) the whereabouts of the body and (b) who stole it from the tomb. They need to do so quickly and discreetly. Who better to call upon than an impartial observer, for example an Ephesian Greek leading a diplomatic trade mission to Jerusalem, to make discreet enquiries among his contacts in Jerusalem as to the whys and wherefores of Jesus’ disappearance?
There is no mystery here for Christians, of course, given that they believe that Jesus, being man and god, was resurrected, or resurrected himself, in order to redeem mankind. But Jesus, according to the Acts of the Apostles, did not ascend into heaven until 40 days after his body vanished from the tomb, which gives our Ephesian Greek plenty of time to play with.
So: the most famous criminal of all time, a political cover-up, a missing corpse, a city fermenting in violent passions, and a reluctant private eye who is heir to the Socratic tradition of questioning logic – sounds like a story to me. Has it been done before? And if not, are there any takers?
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.