Acts of the Assassins


Acts of the Assassins is a sequel, of sorts, to Richard Beard’s 2012 novel, Lazarus is Dead; as this is my first exposure to Beard’s idiosyncratic version of the New Testament, I can safely say that knowledge of the previous novel is not necessary to appreciate his latest. Acts of the Assassins may feature the same protagonist – Cassius Marcellus Gallio, Roman Speculator (that is, a member of their secret police) – but we are quickly made aware that what matters most about the Lazarus case is that Gallio regards it as an “embarrassment.”

“He still doesn’t understand how they did that. Lazarus died from multiple diseases…Gallio couldn’t explain the mechanics, the trick, and when he failed to come up with answers they put him on a caution…He couldn’t afford to fail again.”

Gallio’s latest case is the disappearance of Jesus’ body from his tomb:

“What they have here is an unusual but annoying theft. That is what it is. What it can’t possibly be, and what he refuses to contemplate, is died, risen, coming again.”

The novel’s brilliance lies in the way the story is told. Gallio doesn’t just adopt the speech patterns of a contemporary policeman (“lead”, “tip off”), the novel itself inhabits an anachronistic world in which Rome is the dominant power but one with all the trapping of a modern police force:

“CCTV is inconclusive. The disciples are in and out. From above, with fisheye angles and in corridor light, the men are interchangeable.”

Beard has taken two genres with which most people are over-familiar – Bible stories and police procedurals – and intertwined them to remove that familiarity from both. Time is further disregarded in the novel’s structure, with each chapter based around the death of disciple. Judas, a police informer, is obviously first to meet his end (suicide? or murder made to look like suicide?), but his death sees Gallio punished for losing Jesus’ body by demotion and a posting to the furthest reaches of the Empire. The story picks up years later when he recalled as Rome begin to fear the growing Jesus cult and two of his disciples are found to have returned to Jerusalem:

“You know these people. You were closer to them than anyone else. We have a job for you.”

(Followers of crime fiction will also recognise this particular trope). Once Gallio begins tracking down the remaining disciples, however, they begin dying thick and fast. Again, this is a common feature of crime novels, where the killer’s victims pile up as the detective hunts him down – that Beard draws on Christian tradition (cherry-picking the disciple’s most gruesome deaths) echoes the violence of the most sadistic fictional serial killers.

Beard’s novel is also, of course, a political satire. The hunt for Jesus unavoidably brings to mind that for Osama bin Laden. His followers are regarded as a dangerous sect; their willingness to die for their beliefs the most dangerous thing about them. They are being blamed for the recent fire in Rome. At one point, the phrase ‘ground zero’ is used. As the novel progresses, the terror threat level rises.

This, in itself, would be enough, but Gallio’s own journey gives the novel further depth taking it beyond mere satire. He can, of course, find no evidence beyond the disciples’ unshakeable belief and what he himself has witnessed. Though desperate for a rational explanation, his experience as a detective tells him to keep an open mind:

“Speculators have open minds. That’s one of the requirements written into the job description.”

In Gallio, the novel explores what happens when the rational (and what could be more evidence based than police work?) collides with the inexplicable.

All of these elements have been woven into an exceptional novel, one that fully deserves its Goldsmiths Prize shortlisting.

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12 Responses to “Acts of the Assassins”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    I would love to read this, sounds so clever. I didn’t realise it was a follow up to another book, but good to hear that it can stand alone.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, although I was aware of Beard’s previous novel, I didn’t realise they featured some of the same characters until I started reading. It certainly didn’t inhibit my enjoyment.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Oh, I think I would enjoy this novel! I hadn’t even considered it before now, but you just might have convinced me to give it a go. Are you planning to read any of the others on the Goldsmiths short list?

    • 1streading Says:

      With your love of crime fiction, I think you would really appreciate this.
      I do have Grief is the Thing With Feathers to read too – I loved the Crow poems when I first read them!

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It does sound excellent. I still need to read Lazarus is Dead, which I may add to the post-#tbr20 pile (with many others). I suspect while clearly this can be read stand-alone I’d still like to read them in order.

    • 1streading Says:

      If I’d known this was a sequel I would have certainly read them in order! Gallio’s character develops throughout Acts of the Assassins – it would be interesting to see that journey from the beginning.

  4. roughghosts Says:

    I don’t think this books is out here yet which is my common frustration watching the Goldsmith Prize from afar (my favourite from last year’s short list has still not been issued in North America). I did find a sale copy of Lazarus is Dead and this has inspired me to move it closer up the TBR list.

    • 1streading Says:

      That would be a good place to start. Hopefully exposure via the Goldsmiths Prize will encourage wider publication, though I suppose the very nature of the prize means it deals with books regarded as riskier to publish.

      • roughghosts Says:

        Yes. I adored the quirky Absent Therapist last year (I ordered it from the UK). It has yet to be released here but it is more experimental. I am sure Beard’s book will come out if the first was released. It can sometimes take a year or so.

      • 1streading Says:

        Luckily we can usually order US books fairly easily (otherwise I’d never get to read Jean Echenoz, for example) but it doesn’t always work that way (e.g. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which bizarrely got press reviews in the UK!)

      • roughghosts Says:

        I use Book Depository a lot to access UK and some international books. I do despair that books I love are not going to be discovered on a book shelf which I still think is part of the magic book lovers seek.

  5. Were My Expectations Too High? | findingtimetowrite Says:

    […] of this book (which has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction), see here and here. As for me, when it comes to a book blending religion, history and political satire, I […]

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