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.