( I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.)
Ian Caldwell has not written in a book in ten years since he co-authored THE RULE OF FOUR with Dustin Thomason. It is clear that a lot of thought and research went into this new book. The book will draw inevitable comparisons to DA VINCI CODE but I would caution readers about looking for a new Dan Brown story within Caldwell's work. On the literary spectrum, I would say Caldwell falls closer on the scale to Umberto Eco than Dan Brown. While Dan Brown is a good storyteller, he isn't much of a writer.
THE FIFTH GOSPEL takes place in 2004 as the end of Pope John Paul II's reign. Father Alex Andreou is a Greek (Eastern) Catholic priest who lives inside the Vatican walls with his young son. Father Alex teaches the gospels to young men hoping to someday become priests. Father Alex's brother is Father Simon Andreou who is a Catholic priest holding a prestigious position high in the Secretariat. The two brothers have grown up with close ties to the Catholic church with a father who was a Greek Catholic priest and an uncle who holds a position high within the Church. The brothers embody the split between Western Catholics and Eastern Orthodox that came from a great schism within the church hundreds of years ago. Both of them are closely involved with a mysterious exhibit that is about to take place in the Vatican Museums. The curator, Ugolino Nogara, claims to have made an important discovery regarding the Shroud of Turin. Before Nogara can open his exhibit, he is found in Castel Gandolfo dead from a gunshot wound. Simon is fingered as the killer and Alex must figure out who is framing his brother and why. As he attempts to discover what other secrets the exhibit may have been carrying, Alex must figure out who to trust and how to protect his family.
This is a very difficult book to summarize. There is A LOT going on here. There is a murder mystery and a secret exhibit with a possible coverup within the Church. We see Pope John Paul's final days as the leader of the Catholic Church and his attempt at building a legacy. There are two brothers and the intricacies of the relationship as well as the legacy of their family. There is Alex who struggles not only with his complex feelings surrounding his brother but also with his life as a solo parent in the aftermath of his wife walking out five years before. There is the difficult relationship between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholics and all the history that surrounds that relationship. Whew! It is hard to keep track of everything!
Caldwell is a careful writer who takes him his time in allowing his story to unfold. He offers a lot of detail about the history of the Church and the Shroud. While DA VINCI CODE was a fast-paced thriller where every single chapter ended on a cliffhanger, THE FIFTH GOSPEL does not need to resort to that kind of plot device. Caldwell allows his story to unfold slowly and methodically. He takes his time with his characters so that we know and understand them all very well. We get a lot of back story not only of the characters but of the Church as well. While the story of the exhibit and Shroud take center stage, the relationship between the two brothers and their family is just as important.
There was so much going on in the book that I sometimes found it difficult to follow what was happening. There were a lot of characters to keep track of! Still, I really enjoyed the book. It was thought-provoking and interesting. The best part for me was the story of this unique family and their complicated bonds. I found it even more compelling than the mystery of the exhibit and Nogara's death. Fans of the DA VINCI CODE may be disappointed if they come here looking for more of the same. This isn't a fast-paced conspiracy-driven thriller. It is much more thoughtful. Instead, I would recommend this book to individuals fascinated with religion and Catholic Church history. Reading this book definitely made me want to go and do my own research about Church history and the Shroud of Turin.
BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. Ignore all comparison to the DA VINCI CODE. This book stands on its own as a well-researched and well-written story of the history of the Catholic and Orthodox churches and the Shroud of Turin.