The author says it took him 10 years to finish this novel; it follows The Rule of Four, a book he co-authored with Dustin Thomason that spent 49 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. And now that I've read it, I understand why. The time it must have taken to ferret out the details that make it so intriguing - from hidden nooks and crannies within Vatican City to nuances in passages from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - boggle my mind (and this from someone who enjoys doing research). But I'll warn others up front: I found it impossible to speed-read my way through the book. The devil's in the details, so to speak, and those details are well worth the effort even though they get a bit heavy at times. Glossing over anything, though, would mean missing way too much.
Because of the subject matter, comparisons with Dan Brown's books The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons are inevitable; I've read and enjoyed both, but in many respects, I found this one more to my liking. For openers, the story is woven more around historical facts, insights into Papal law, Biblical interpretation and differences among Roman and Greek Catholicism than clandestine groups out to destroy the church and human feats that test the boundaries of believability.
There's another big difference: This one is a story about family ties - both with blood relatives and the family that is the Church. At the center are two brothers, Father Alex Andreou and Father Simon Andreou. Their love for each other is strong, as is their love for their churches: Father Simon is a Roman Catholic and Father Alex is a Greek Catholic. Among the differences? Father Alex is allowed to be married, even though he works at the Vatican. He lives here with his young son, Peter - his wife, Mona, abandoned her husband and child a few years earlier.
Early on, a man named Ugo Nogaro, curator of an upcoming exhibit involving the currently debunked Shroud of Turin, is found dead. In addition to his work with the Shroud, Nogaro has been doing extensive research on the four gospels as well as the Diatessaron, a fifth gospel that apparently was written to bring together and clarify differences in those first four books. Father Simon has been helping with the exhibit, and Father Alex, also a teacher and expert on scriptures, has been helping Nogaro with understanding what is written in the gospels.
Because Father Simon was standing near Nogaro's dead body, he is arrested by the Vatican police and stashed away in a secret place. Worse, he refuses to say a word in his own defense. But his brother, Father Alex (from whose perspective the story is told), steadfastly believes in his innocence and sets out to prove it - a journey that delves into the reasons Nogaro was murdered and secrets of both the Shroud and Diatessaron that church leaders may not want revealed.
For those who enjoy learning about the history and workings of the Catholic Church, complex interactions among family members and a good murder mystery, I highly recommend this book (conversely, those who believe every word of the Bible is literal fact probably won't like it at all). And as I said at the outset, it's far from light reading ("tedious" is a word that appears in a couple of the less-than-favorable reviews), but as far as I'm concerned, it's one of the best books I've read in quite some time.
The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell (Simon & Schuster, March 2015); 448 pp.