Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury

Never remind readers of your book of another, better book, and especially never remind them of Foucault's Pendulum, the book that destroyed all future silly historical conspiracy thrillers, particularly if your book is a silly historical conspiracy thriller.

But not long into The Last Templar, a minor character  quotes the above tome by saying that you can always tell a lunatic because '...sooner or later he always brings up the Templars.'

To feed my bizarre and recurring revulsion/fascination with Da Vinci Code-knock-off airport thrillers, I finally picked up The Last Templar in a cancer shop in Surrey. Published in 2005, this book was a relatively early entry into the genre, and has all the standard tropes we’ve come to associate with it, but also a few touches that make it stand out.

In terms of the basic details, The Last Templar fits perfectly into its genre. It features a male and a female protagonist who race around the world trying to find an artefact that will provide startling evidence about the history of the Catholic church, rocking it (as usual in these books) to its foundations.

It does have a memorable opening: instead of the main characters being summoned to the scene by the mysterious death of an expert in the field, they are united by a strange happening at the New York Metropolitan Museum. During an exhibit of treasures *ahem* acquired by the Church over the centuries, four horse-riding lunatics in full Templar garb storm the museum and steal, of all things, some sort of medieval decoding device. It’s a striking and bloody intro that lodges in the mind. There isn’t anything else in the book quite as good as it from a dramatic point of view, and I feel as though this scene alone almost guaranteed the book a movie (or TV miniseries, as it turned out) version.

Anyway, an archaeologist called Tess and an FBI agent called Reilly get involved in the case. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re almost absurdly clich├ęd thriller characters, but for some reason I kinda liked them anyway. Tess is one of those strong, driven career women who populate these kinds of books, while Reilly... well, Reilly is one of those archetypal cop-who-buries-himself-in-his-work-to-forget-his personal-demons characters. Sigh. Yeah, I liked him anyway. When they aren’t investigating medieval-themed murders, the two bond over a mutual love of terrible puns and Steely Dan. Seriously.

One of the oddities of the book is that Reilly continually references the 9/11 attacks and terrorism in general during the investigation. This book more than most puts its rather silly thriller events directly in the context of the then-current war-on-terror. It does make the book seem somewhat dated, but in fairness the author is working up to an eventual point about religion and fanaticism that does eventually tie-in with the ancient artefact plot that’s brewing.

Something else that characters do a lot of that’s distinctly early-noughties is surfing the net. Any time they go looking for information, we get loving descriptions of how many hits they receive and how many pages they scroll through and how generally awesome Google is. It’s amazing how something that was once noteworthy and interesting is now so ubiquetus that it almost seems offensive to have to read about people doing it. I mean, we know people research stuff on the net. We presume they do, just like we do. We don’t want to have to hear about it. We presume that characters in fiction go to the toilet for non plot-related reasons too, but we don’t want to hear about that either.

Anyway, they eventually find themselves driving through rural Turkey. It’s the only big trip they make really, and there’s little local colour added- a stop-off in Istanbul is glossed-over. They might as well be driving through backwoods Pennsylvania for all the use the author gets out of the exotic location. There’s a surprising lack of the requisite globe-trotting in this book, with most of the first half taking place in New York. It becomes obvious that someone’s out to get them, as snipers keep shooting at them and peeking with infra-red goggles when they’re getting it on around the campfire and such. It could be the deranged anti-clerical academic or it could be the coolly-detached Vatican representative, but we’re just going to have to wait and see, aren’t we?

After some other shenanigans involving a sunken Turkish village, Tess and Reilly find out that the artefact everyone’s chasing is in fact the personal diary of Jesus H. Christ. While in the clutches of the aforementioned deranged academic, Vance, they have a discussion about what such a thing might mean. And this is where the book gets interesting.

Vance gives them a fairly in-depth (for a thriller) breakdown of how Christianity got started and where the gospels came from, as far as sensible archaeology understands it. All the usual factoids that everybody now knows because of Dan Brown are included: the gospels were written many years after the events they described supposedly happened, many odd or incompatible gospels were not included when the Church decided what was canon at the Council or Nicea, many of these gospels paint Jesus as a mortal teacher rather than as the son of God, etc. As usual, I enjoyed this historical stuff more than most of the action bits of the book, and I wish there had been more of it.

Reilly is shocked by all this, being a practising Catholic who we’re supposed to believe has clearly never looked too deeply into the particulars of what he’s supposed to believe. Bear in mind that the gang haven’t yet come across any great secrets from the past: what Vance tells him is acknowledged to be common knowledge to archaeologists. But in fairness to the author, this section asks the hard questions of a person of faith and follows these facts sensibly to their unsettling (to the faithful) conclusions. Reilly is shaken and horrified. He’s also portrayed as something of a simpleton: no intelligent religious person in the real world wouldn’t have their prepared answers to such a challenge today.

The rest of the book continues the action, during which the characters flip and flop over what confirmation of these facts and fallacies (which they presume the Jesus diaries will contain) will mean to the world at large. Will millions of people be unable to deal with the truth? Will society collapse? Do the benefits of belief outweigh its inarguable horrors (aah, I see what you were doing with all that 9/11 stuff, Khoury!)? I won’t provide any more outright spoilers, but suffice it to say that while he earned my respect by being uncompromising with the (probable) truth earlier on, the author, in my opinion, somewhat wusses out towards the end on this key issue. Admittedly, the alternative would have involved realising a staggering world change that may have defeated some of the greatest speculative fiction writers of our day.

The Last Templar then, is a mildly diverting read that brings a few things of interest to the genre, but ultimately fumbles the ball on the one issue that could have made it rise above what it is.

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