An intelligent novel with a wonderful central conceit which looks at the intersection of faith and rationality while also exploring the idea of religion as a political movement that aims to upset the status quo.
It’s a bit spoilerific, but I love this bit..
The street-views on tape are cut from fourteen separate cameras, and the screen geeks have spliced the shots into a single sequence. From the beginning Jesus is not in good shape, weakened by flaying. He carries the cross-beam himself and often he falls. His mother breaks from the crowd to help him, a lapse in security. She should never have made it through the cordon. Soon after that the uniformed escort forces a spectator, a youngish black man, to help with the cross-beam. Gallio freezes the face, but recognition software can’t find a match. A little later a second unidentified individual, this time a woman, comes out of the crowd to wipe Jesus’s face. No match, no criminal record or previous arrests. The first part of this death/resurrection scam is clean, Jesus and his disciples passing every test of criminal hygiene. Gallio uncovers no loose ends, no careless recruitment of accomplices with a history. Jesus falls again. The third time he falls some more women, as a group, hold up the procession with their local weeping and wailing. They are suspects, and every face needs identifying before being cleared. Then Jesus falls again. Falling could be a signal, but this time nothing special happens, no one else arrives to help him, to deliver a message or receive instructions. The execution is back on track, though behind schedule due to the many delays. By the time the procession reaches Golgotha the soldiers have regained control.
If you’ve read Richard Beard’s 2012 novel, Lazarus is Dead, you probably won’t be that surprised by the central conceit of his latest book, Acts of the Assassins. However, if you’re like me and you’re new to Beard’s work then you’ll hoot out loud when, a few pages into the novel, it becomes abundantly clear that the ‘missing corpse’ our protagonist Cassius Gallio has been tasked to find is the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What makes this reveal all the more brilliant and fascinating is that the novel is set in contemporary times; that the story of the death, the alleged resurrection and gospel of Christ is taking place in a world of iPhones, airplanes and TripAdvisor.
While Acts of the Assassins is set in an alternate history, this really isn’t a speculative fiction novel. There is an expectation among genre fans that when an author diverges from known historical events she or he has considered the ramification of that fork in the road. But other than retaining the Roman Empire as a world power, because what would Jesus be without Romans, nothing else has really changed; history, without Christianity, has essentially followed the same track. There are iPhones (branded as such), people drink Coca Cola and the airport in Israel is called Ben Gurion, implying that the country gained its independence in 1948. In other words, Beard has made no concession to what our contemporary life would be like if there’d been no such thing as Jesus two thousand year previously. Consequently, I’m sure there will be fans of speculative fiction who struggle to read a book that seems to care so little about the ripples of history.
Personally, I liked the fact that Beard doesn’t get bogged down in the details. It means that Acts of the Assassins can be read as a revisionist critique of the influence Christianity had on Western culture. There are those who argue that without the civilizing influence of Christianity none of the technological and societal advances we enjoy would have occurred. Of course, in Beard’s alternate history Judaism still exists (there’s no mention of Islam) and coupled with the secularism of the Roman Empire, it could be argued that Christianity is surplus to requirements. However, that’s not the message I get from the novel. While the book does, at times, poke fun at the Christian faith, especially the true believers who will travel to Spain to touch the bones of a Disciple, Beard’s attention is more focused on Christianity as a political movement desiring to overturn the status quo. In fact the death of Jesus and the absconding of his body coupled with the Disciples claiming that he is the son of God and has risen to bring peace on Earth is viewed by the Roman’s as an act of terrorism. And suddenly, setting the novel in a world that’s very similar to our own makes perfect sense. Replace the Romans with America, replace Jesus and his Disciples (who are depicted in the novel as a death cult) with ISIS and you can’t help but view the Christ story in a different light. I’m not saying that Beard actively compares Jesus and the Disciples to “Radical Islam”, but the Christian mission has always been to convert others to the word of Jesus and when you push that forward 2,000 years it becomes a direct threat to a Western way of life, no matter how peaceful the intent. As my Dad has always said, if the Messiah did pop up one day to take the Jews to Jerusalem, we’d probably tell him to piss off.
I haven’t mentioned Cassius and yet his story, his character arc is what gives the novel its backbone. When he can’t find Jesus’ corpse he is disgraced, forced to give up his role as a Speculator for the Complex Casework Unit (CCU) and become a grunt in the Army. A few years later and Cassius, frustrated that he was fooled by an insignificant cult, is called back to the CCU to investigate the death of one of the Disciples, James, who has been beheaded. When Thomas is stoned and Jude is shot with arrows, Cassius figures out that someone is deliberately killing the Disciples for reasons that go beyond their perceived unpopularity. Cassius believes if he can find Jesus (dead or alive), or if he can uncover why the disciples are being killed, he can be forgiven for originally losing Jesus’ body and reclaim his role as a Speculator.
Cassius story, though, is more than just about him discovering the truth, it’s also a spiritual journey as he begins to increasingly vacillate between whether Christ was / is a supernatural figure or just an arch manipulator who has used the Disciples as a means of increasing his power and promoting the faith. Yes, there’s an element of cynicism about all this, and the reveal of who is behind the murder of the Disciples only adds to the cynicism. But Cassius also goes through a sense of awakening as he begins to feel empathy for the Disciples, genuinely concerned for their well-being (even if they seem to have a death wish). It means that Cassius is a sympathetic character without ever truly being likable.
Acts of the Assassins does have its flaws. The repetitive nature of the Disciples facing dangers, dying in grisly ways and Cassius and Claudia (his partner) being one step behind did wear me down a little. I was also annoyed that Beard fell back on the old cliché of Cassius eventually having sex with his female partner, after thinking naughty thoughts about her for a good chunk of the novel. I understand why it’s there for plot related reason and it does highlight that Cassius isn’t necessarily a nice guy, but it’s one of the few predictable elements of the novel.
Those criticisms aside, Acts of The Assassins is a terrific novel. It’s supplanting of the Jesus story in a contemporary and recognizable milieu compels the reader to view Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins as a political and revolutionary act, rather than an act of faith and love.