The Fifth Gospel is a religious-themed literary thriller. It is set in the fascinating and rather mysterious world of The Vatican, but you don't need to be a believer, belong to a particular faith or be well versed in the finer points of the religious texts to enjoy it.
I'll admit to being pretty uneducated when it comes to all things religious and I learnt an awful lot of fascinating facts about life in the Vatican, the complicated politics of the Catholic church and the ambiguity and contradictions of certain passages of the Bible. I kept thinking to myself "yes, but this is fiction, it may not be true" but the book took an amazing TEN YEARS to write, in which time Ian Caldwell studied a vast array of primary sources to use in his novel.
The central characters of the novel are two brothers, Simon and Alex Andreou. Both are Catholic priests but Alex is Greek Catholic, with an estranged wife and a young son, while Simon is Roman Catholic. Both men are friends with Doctor Ugo Nogara, a man who is working on a mysterious, highly controversial and, in terms of Catholic politics, potentially dangerous exhibition about the Turin Shroud. While he seems to be focusing on the authenticity of the shroud, Nogara makes a possibly earth-shattering discovery in the scriptures. We all know the four gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but I was totally unaware of a fifth gospel, called the Diatessaron, which tries to compare all four gospels and condense them into a truer, real-life gospel. It is commonly assumed that John's gospel is a theological text rather than an eyewitness account, using symbolism rather than realism, unlike the other gospels. Just as Nogara's exhibition is about to be unveiled and his big secret revealed, he is found dead. Even more shocking, Simon Andreou is at the scene and becomes the prime suspect.
Simon is put on trial, not in a regular civil court but in front of a papal tribunal, with its own mysterious rules and regulations. Father Alex has to try to unravel Doctor Nogara's research in order to prove his brother's innocence before it's too late.
Despite the rather high-brow content, Ian Caldwell delivers an intense, dramatic thriller with believable and perfectly imperfect characters. The Vatican, with its unusual protocol and mysterious secrets, provides the perfect backdrop for a murder-mystery and the huge amount of background research is evident when you read the story.
star rating : 4.5/5
RRP : £14.99
Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book in order to write an honest review.