The Jesus Thief
(Great Reads Books, $26.95, 285 pages, hardcover; March 2003.)
(Orion Publishing & Media, $25.95, 333 pages, hardcover; January 2003.)
It seems there is a season for novels In His Image, of an entire trilogy of them,
James BeauSeigneur's Christ Clone Trilogy. The tv miniseries
cannot surely be far away, doubtless to be followed by the "reality"
show. The two novels discussed here are of astonishingly different standards;
I cannot speak for BeauSeigneur's series as I have not seen it.
the cloning of Jesus Christ, and we're in the middle of it; in addition
to the two discussed here there has recently (January 2003) been published
the first volume,
J.R. Lankford's The Jesus Thief is essentially a thriller with
sciencefictional and theological overtones. Improbably wealthy Dr Felix
Rossi is part of the latest team permitted by the Vatican to examine
the Turin Shroud. He has plotted to snip a tiny thread from one of the
apparently bloodstained areas in order to attempt to create a clone
of Christ. His plans become more urgent when he discovers, just before
his trip, that, while raised a Catholic, he is in fact the child of
Jews who sought refuge from Nazism in the USA and adopted Catholicism
in order better to fit in; since Jews are held responsible for Christ's
death and persecuted as a result, reasons Rossi, then his restoration
by a Jew might decrease the attacks.
Thread snipped, back home he goes, and he sets to work in the laboratory
in his luxury Manhattan apartment. His black maid Maggie, discovering
what's up, volunteers herself as the vessel for the developing fetus;
she, it proves, is a virgin, so could hardly be more suitable for the
The owner of Rossi's apartment block is a Mr Brown, whose enigmatic
doings are mysterious indeed; even his closest aides seem to know little
of their nature beyond that some of the most powerful people in the
world seem to be beholden to him. One of the building's doormen, Sam,
is among Mr Brown's little army of agents-cum-hired-muscles. However,
Sam falls in love with Maggie, and thereby soon becomes allied to Rossi's
cause -- which, for reasons scrutable only to himself, Mr Brown strenuously
Despite this opposition, Rossi has enough money to evade pursuers,
with Sam's active help, and Maggie's pregnancy slowly advances...
It's all tremendous page-turning fun, and it has also some more thoughtful
elements that make it -- unlike so many thrillers -- a rollercoaster
ride that one actually remembers after finishing the book. Here, for
example, is a little bit of dialogue that not only gives the rationale
for the tale but also rather nicely deals with any idea that the cloning
of Christ might be in any way blasphemous:
"That's true," Maggie said. "Every Sunday in my church the preacher
climbs the pulpit and talks to mostly women and children and precious
few of them. Can't hardly find a man there at all. You know why? Because
religions won't change. We got six billion people already, and the
Pope's out telling Catholics to have billions more. People got common
sense. They know better than that. The Jews are still carrying on
about eating pork chops and Trick or Treating on Halloween. So is
the Christian right. I mean, do you really think an all-loving, all-knowing,
omnipotent God is worried about Trick or Treat?"
[Rossi] looked confused. "Then why are you doing this, Maggie?"
"Because I think we need him to come back. Religions have stood
still but their congregations haven't. People have moved on and, Dr.
Rossi, I'm telling you that's God's plan. It was him that made us
thinkers, him that made us curious. Take a baby in diapers, put him
alone in a room with a box, and the baby's gonna crawl to that box
and see what's in it."
As befits a first novel, The Jesus Thief isn't entirely flawless.
I could personally have done with a few less than the half dozen or
so moments of spontaneous religious ecstasy (or whatever) experienced
by one or other of the characters -- you know: OK, so we know
s/he's a holy roller, now could you please get on with the story?
And just once or twice Lankford fumbles with the motivations of her
characters; for example, Sam's reaction, when he first discovers that
Rossi is experimenting with Maggie, seems totally out of proportion
to the situation. Quite frankly, though, the tale rattles along so fast
in all other respects that these minor blips are easily ignored.
The contrast with Cloning Christ, by Peter Senese "with Robert
Geis", could hardly be greater. To be honest, I'm somewhat hesitant
to say what I really think about this novel, because any description
I give of its dreadfulness will surely come across as just a spate of
Archaeologist/geneticist Max Train, who a decade or so ago was accused
and acquitted of massacring his family, is in Israel excavating with
his old friend Luke Gartner and a couple of graduate students. In a
cave they discover what appears to be the True Cross. As they examine
further, an explosion kills all except Train, who escapes a fusillade
of gunfire to bear much of the Cross away for analysis and in due course,
using the bloodstains, for the attempt to clone Christ. Nasty Cardinal
Anselm Mugant, hearing of this, mounts a clandestine, unsanctioned mission
to stop him at all costs, including mass murder -- which is carried
out joyously by a psychopath called The Scorpion. We know that The Scorpion
is very nasty indeed, because the authors tell us so, repeatedly; one
suspects that they'd have shifted to boldface in order to make this
even plainer had they thought they could get away with it.
The problem Cloning Christ has is that it is execrably written,
so that for much of the time one's scratching one's head trying to work
out what the hell is actually going on. The main characters do presumably
have motivations, but I'm as baffled as to what they might be as I was
before I started reading. The blurb, perhaps, gives a clearer clue than
the book itself in this latter regard:
Mugant is made to represent how Man, when completely self-serving,
can actually do great harm, including the destruction of God's Way
no matter his original intention. ... Mugant soon enlists the services
of the internationally rumored assassin known simply as "The
Scorpion" to track down Max and silence him with death. The Scorpion,
a one-time penitent of the Cardinal, is a force of pure evil and who
challenges life. He forces this same challenge onto Max as he casts
a deadly shadow over his praised soul and every move he makes.
Adding intricate subterfuge to the plot is the existence of Mugant's
"Fifth Crusade", five international industrialists with great power
and reach devout in the Cardinal's perspective on human genetic science.
Together, Mugant launches an all-out attack to find the ancient artifacts
in Train's possession, and prevent the genetic scientist from doing
the unthinkable in his eyes -- announcing to the world a cross containing
bodily remnants could indeed be the True Cross of Jesus of Nazareth
-- and clone the body of Christ!
I've quoted a little more of the blurb than need be in order to give
you a flavour of the writing; please let us have no cheap jokes about
the phrase "prevent the genetic scientist from doing the unthinkable
in his eyes". The text is littered with homophones -- "threw" for "through",
"shown" for "shone", "their" for "there", "scene" for "seen", "peaked"
for "piqued", etc. -- but the problems go far, far beyond mere lack
of proofreading. Or lack of copy-editing, come to that: a kindly copy-editor
might have introduced the authors to the pluperfect ("He clapped his
hands in song, participating in the gypsy-like festivities that occurred
daily on the Spanish steps for centuries") and other items of basic
Rapid sonorous beats of turmoil and uncertainty pulsed in his head
to near unimaginable proportions as the potential ramifications perpending
if what he expected to discover was to come true overtook him.
Here are some further curios that any competent copy-editor would surely
have picked up:
His itinerant brown eyes darted onto the dim city street outside.
Presumably they were on their way to some gypsy-like festivities.
The Scorpion smirked before sending a bullet into Francesco's forehead.
Looking around the blood and gut-spattered dining room, the killer
How a single bullet to the head could have spattered the room with
guts is anyone's guess.
"The Crusader vision of our equestrian order is at the service of
our faith" were words from Muhlor's investiture into a centuries old
order of Church knighthood that he carried with him everywhere.
A weighty religious burden indeed. And:
The patron licked his fingers with saliva.
It is of course a great shame for Lankford that these two novels, with
such similar themes, should have come out almost at the same time, since
word of mouth about the Senese/Geis book will inevitably affect sales
of hers: "You know that novel about cloning Christ? Well, I found it
unreadable ..." It's worth your effort to make sure you have the two
clearly distinguished in your mind, because The Jesus Thief --
a thoroughly entertaining tale with just about the right amount of thought-provoking
ingredients in the mix -- will richly repay your time.
Review by John Grant.