Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Mysterious Appeal of Religious Conspiracies

Sandra Parshall

A conspiracy that lives on in the heart of an ancient order...

An astounding miracle and a secret that could change the world...

A truth so dangerous that it could destroy the very foundations of the Christian faith...

Considering that fewer than half of Americans ever attend church services, our fascination with religion-based thrillers is puzzling, but it’s undeniable. Although The Da Vinci Code has finally fallen off the bestseller lists after a record-breaking run, Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons is still selling briskly in both mass market and trade paperback. The new Tom Hanks film based on the book will keep it on the lists at least until Brown's next book, The Lost Symbol, comes out in September. No other author has equaled Brown’s success in this subgenre, but the fresh crop of religious conspiracy thrillers that shows up in every publishing season indicates that readers are still receptive to variations on the theme. And there’s no shortage of writers eager to win over Brown’s readers.

Because this type of thriller relies heavily on Christian history, it necessarily revolves around the Catholic Church. In some stories, the Vatican itself is hiding an “explosive secret” that might destroy Christianity if revealed. In others, the keepers of the secret are an ancient order affiliated with the Church. In all cases, someone in the present is drawn into an investigation that powerful forces are determined to stop.

Ralph McInerny, a University of Notre Dame professor of theology and author of the Father Dowling Mysteries, ventured into religious thriller territory this year with The Third Revelation (Jove mass market paperback original). The first in a projected series called The Rosary Chronicles, The Third Revelation takes retired CIA operative Vincent Traeger to Rome on a clandestine mission to investigate the murders of the Vatican Secretary of State and a prefect of the Vatican Library. As you might expect, Traeger’s task soon expands to earthshaking dimensions as he fights an unseen enemy and searches for a secret hidden in the story of Our Lady of Fatima. This is a very different kind of mystery for McInerny, one that fans of Father Dowling might not warm to readily, but readers who love religious conspiracies and don’t blink at outrageous premises may enjoy it.

Another newcomer to the subgenre is James Becker, who debuted with The First Apostle in March (Signet mass market paperback original). Becker’s hero is British police detective Chris Bronson, who travels to Italy when his best friend’s wife – the woman Bronson was secretly in love with – dies in what appears to be an accident. Bronson suspects she was murdered by intruders who were after a strange Latin inscription that was uncovered above a fireplace when his friend’s house was remodeled. The action ranges throughout Europe, as Bronson and his ex-wife, a museum curator, attempt to decipher the mysterious inscription and encounter resistance from the inevitable powerful but unseen forces as well as the Mafia. The novel is fast-paced and may appeal to fans of Dan Brown’s books.

The pseudonymous Paul Christopher has published art world thrillers – Michelangelo’s Notebook, Rembrandt’s Ghost – but in July he’s stepping into Brown’s territory with The Sword of the Templars (Signet mass market paperback original). He takes on Brown on the first page of the book, as his hero, Lt. Col. John Holliday, dismisses as “bull” Brown’s depiction of the Knights Templar as sacred keepers of the secret of Christ’s bloodline. The Knights, Holliday contends, were “nothing more than a gang of extortionists and thugs.” The rest of the book demonstrates that those who carry “the secrets of the Templar legacy” are even more unpleasant than the original crew. The story is set in motion by discovery of a crusader’s sword wrapped in a Nazi flag, and it includes the usual beautiful woman as sidekick and dangerous race across Europe.

Any of these books, and the many like them, may find fans among readers who wait impatiently for Dan Brown’s next novel. But can any writer displace Brown as the master of Vatican conspiracy thrillers? For that matter, can anyone explain what makes Brown the master? Did he come along with the right book at the right time, or did The Da Vinci Code offer something truly fresh and different? When The Lost Symbol appears, will it be snatched up by ravenous readers, or will its appeal be diminished by the long string of similar books that have been published in the years since Da Vinci first caught the public’s imagination?


Julia Buckley said...

I think people love these books because they combine three popular things: mystery, history, and conspiracy (and sometimes Nazis). I'm reminded of the third Indiana Jones mystery, which has a lot of similarities to the third book you mentioned.

I guess Spielberg saw even back in the 80s that those four things made for compelling fiction.

Sandra Parshall said...

It's the fascination with the religious elements that I find a little baffling. Da Vinci Code spawned a boatload of books dealing with esoteric religious cults, symbols, etc. Perhaps it's the supernatural element that attracts people. In a way, it's a lot like the vampire craze.