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The Jesus Thief

by JR Lankford

(Great Reads Books, $26.95, 285 pages, hardcover; March 2003.)

Cloning Christ

by Peter Senese with Robert Geis

(Orion Publishing & Media, $25.95, 333 pages, hardcover; January 2003.)

It seems there is a season for novels cover scanabout 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, 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.

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 role.

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 opposes.

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 cover scannegative hyperbole.

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 grammar:

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.

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