Richard Beard’s Acts of the Assassins (Harvill Secker), but as Gallio quickly discovers, this is a missing persons case with a significant difference.
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.
On the basis of its opening 20 pages or so, the second offering Richard Beard’s ‘Messiahs Trilogy’ – the first, Lazarus is Dead, was published in 2011 – is an audacious take on the crime / mystery novel. Beard is clearly a student (or perhaps scholar might be more appropriate) of the crime fiction genre, given that the story begins as a straightforward police procedural investigation but also broadens out to incorporate other sub-genres such as the spy novel (“Jesus has skills, fieldcraft …” muses Gallio on his foe). The serial killer novel also looms large when it is discovered that the disciples, having exiled themselves to various parts of the empire, are being bumped off one by one, murdered by some shadowy killer in a variety of gory deaths, such as beheadings, flayings, stonings and so forth.
On one level a steely-eyed investigation into the apparent miracle of Jesus’ resurrection, the novel also functions as a metaphysical exploration of faith and belief. Gallio, a proud citizen of the Roman empire, views Jesus, his disciples and their teachings about life after death as superstitions that run contrary to his own unswerving belief in civilisation, science and rationalism.
These all offer intriguing elements to a hugely readable novel, but arguably the most intoxicating aspect of the story is Beard’s narrative experiment in what he describes as ‘quantum fiction’. Despite the fact that Gallio is investigating the alleged resurrection of Jesus, the story takes place in a contemporary setting, complete with modern weaponry, travel and attitudes towards terrorism. The concept is that, as Gallio observes of Jerusalem, “past and present coexist. Possibly the future too.” The narrative style gives Gallio (and the reader) “a vision of eternity where everything is now, and now is everything,” 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. The world as it is keeps turning.”
Meanwhile, Gallio himself will be familiar to fans of the conventional mystery novel, a taciturn loner with commitment issues who is overly fond of the booze, but in the context of the rich tapestry Beard weaves around his protagonist, Gallio’s very ordinariness is something of a relief, a recognisably human (with all the failings that implies) touchstone in a bewildering new landscape.
“Jesus might be the gentle son of god spreading the wealth and healing the sick,” muses Gallio at one point. “Or he could be an intolerant fucker, good with a knife.” Controversial, thought-provoking, funny and challenging, Acts of the Assassins is a delightfully fantastic and utterly compelling tale. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post.
“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. “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.