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Acts Of The Assassins by Richard Beard

The membrane between God and man
is thin here, between the living and the dead,
madness and sanity.
Enthralled as I was by the re-telling of the Lazarus story, from the viewpoint of the titular resurrectee, one of the most entertaining tales I've read affectionately appropriated from the Christian Bible, I was bemusedly unprepared for Beard's latest reimagining: for I hadn't clicked that this was the story of what came after the ascension of Jesus.

Thankfully so! Having read a review by Philip Hensher in the Guardian where he points out the absolute futility of transmogrifying the crucifixion and resurrection story into the popular crime procedural form, it probably would have put me off in a small way. However, blundering in blindly, I twigged pretty quickly but it was a very pleasant surprise and made me want to find out if Gallio could figure it all out before everyone died. I can only imagine my sigh of disdain had I known this up front. I am, after all, sinfully disdainful.

Instead I was treated to a wryly amusing novel, situated both in the present and the past, an intriguing device (flagged with the quote from the letters of Peter wherein he explains that "With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.").  Intelligence officer, Cassius Marcello Gallio, returning from his cameo in Lazarus Is Dead, exiled to Europe in disgrace having failed to both assure the death and prevent the assumed escape of terrorist cult leader Jesus from his tomb, is drawn into the pursuit of the resurrected insurrectionist and the prevention of the serial murders of his disciples. He sees it as his chance to right a wrong, to reclaim his place as a Speculator in the ranks of the Roman Complex Casework Unit, but as he searches for answers he begins to lose his faith in those around him, in his mission, and in the certainty that he saw Jesus die on the cross.

Even in the most soul-searchingly emotional scenes, it's hard not to picture Beard with a grin on his face. It's an epic satire, an exploration of rationalism versus belief, but towards the end, where the last disciple, blind John, nurses the frail and dying Gallio, still struggling to come to terms with the failure of his logic, it allows the humour to fall away and becomes thoughtful and sombre, providing a catalyst for the reader to ponder just what has happened over the course of 340 pages. Gallio is a skeptic and from the beginning it's clear his searching will be in vain unless he softens his calcified position and opens his heart. He comes close to understanding but just can't let go of his ego and dies in darkness.

This is only my second Beard novel, but he's certainly creeping up the undocumented and oft-changing list of authors whose backlist I intend to seek out and hoard to the point of obsession. This is a superbly entertaining novel on any number of levels you care to consider.

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