Sunday, August 28, 2016
Photo: The book's paperback cover.
The sequel to Tallis's slightly better A Death in Vienna, this one is still a success. The Washington Post called it "the first great thriller of 2008." I'm not on top of my 2008 thrillers, but this book is very good.
The mystery is less mysterious than the first in the series, and it shouldn't be hard for the reader to guess the killer. Because there are lots of red herrings, both in the plot and in other characters, the book won't be a disappointment if you correctly guessed the killer. The interesting historical fact this time is that the swastika--forever to be associated with evil and the Nazis--was actually a much older symbol that, ironically, stood for peace and unity. Not anymore, and not ever again.
Which brings up one of the interesting things about Tallis and these books: You learn something. Like Dan Brown's thrillers, you get entertained and you get educated at the same time. I used to sometimes stop reading Brown's books and write something down that I wanted to Google. With Tallis, I've written things down that I wanted to hear on YouTube. Some have been hits, and some have been misses (such as Stockhausen, Studie 1, from a horror novel of his I'm reading now), but I've always been curious and interested. Tallis is more interested in music than in images, like Brown is, and Tallis writes historical thrillers, so you learn about the past--in this case, Vienna in 1902. Brown doesn't do that, as he brings things from the past into his thrillers in the present. But it's all good. As long as you're reading and learning, who cares?
You learn that the main character--and, one assumes, more popular Jews in Vienna, like Freud--were daily victims of bias. For example, both men (at different times) have been the recipient of snide, vulgar remarks about being Jewish, from supposedly learned and sophisticated men. Freud ignored it and Liebermann shrugged it off, but both explained it was a daily occurrence. (On a side note, Freud was apparently a teller of funny, but often crude and stereotypical, Jewish jokes. One of them, about how you could tell Jesus was Jewish, I'd heard before.) There may be a bit too much about the Freemasons of Vienna here, but that's okay, too, and you may think, as I did, that you're learning something new, as they don't seem much like the Freemasons of America I've read about.
Poor Clara is treated a little curtly here, but if you've read the first one, you've seen it coming. She immediately (and a little too patly) recovers, but that was okay with me, because she was likable, and not as dim as Liebermann thought (which he often recognized), and you don't want her to be sad. It wouldn't have worked out with me, either, but I would also have been glad that she was happy. Whatever.
So a very quick read, and worthy of your time if you like historical thrillers. I'm taking a break from Tallis's historical thrillers for now; I'm in the middle of a horror novel, written by him as F.R. Tallis. I'll let you know.
P.S.--For the waltz by Strauss that gives the book its title, click this link to YouTube.
Monday, August 22, 2016
Photo: The FSU student who killed a couple at random and was caught eating the guy's face.
Just a few fast random things on my mind:
--Did you see the headline of the FSU student who randomly killed a couple and was caught eating the guy's face? Check it out here if you haven't. It took four policemen, a canine and a taser to make him stop. He'd been eating breakfast with his family at a restaurant a few hours before, and had left in a huff, apparently yelling about bad service. His family and friends had said he'd been acting bizarrely for about a month. Officials, of course, suspect flakka or bath salts, or similar drugs.
Why do I bring it up? (Besides because of how messed up it is?) Well, I don't want to sound purposely controversial, but a friend of mine said that if the FSU student had been black, and been caught as he had been, by four cops, biting off the face of a dead white guy, he would've been shot immediately. And not with a taser.
I hate to say it, but I'm not sure I disagree.
--Why are people still showing up at Trump rallies? Don't they realize the negativity that says about them? They might as well carry signs that say, I'M A BIGOT AND A RACIST AND I ONLY CARE ABOUT ME.
--There's a serial killer near Phoenix who has shot random people, mostly from his car, though he did walk up to a woman and a couple of girls and open fire on them. Crazy stuff. Read about it here if you're interested.
Why do I bring it up? (Besides because of how messed up this is as well?) Because the police say they're looking for a guy in his early to mid-twenties (based on witness reports) who possibly works at a car dealership (because he's been seen using cars ranging from a Nissan to a BMW and a Cadillac or Lincoln.) The victims are all unrelated, of different races (though most are from the poor neighborhoods of nearby Maryvale), and are shot in their driveways or parking lots, while just talking or just getting out to go into the house. All or most of the killings have taken place between 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. (I've read more than just the article linked above.)
I just have one quick thing to add, and a slight correction (based on no experience whatsoever). I read somewhere that nobody has reported any cars stolen that may have been used in the shootings. Because of this (if it's true), and because of the time frame of the shootings, and because of the quality of cars used, I'm going to disagree about this killer possibly working at a car dealership.
I'm guessing this guy has prior training, either in the armed forces, or police or SWAT training, because how many killers have shot right in front of the people at very close range? I'm also guessing that he doesn't work at a dealership (How many are open that late, anyway?), but may instead work as a valet for an establishment that men visit, and who won't report a car stolen because it's proof that they've been there. In other words, authorities should be looking for a guy with up-close combat training who works as a valet for an upscale cathouse or gentlemen's club.
How many guys like that are in their 20s, who've been in the armed forces, who work as valets in places like that in the Phoenix / Maryvale area? It's got to be someplace close by, because though the guys will be busy for a specific amount of time, they may also be trying to make it quick to get home, or to the hotel--though the owners of the cars may not be local guys, but may be visiting businessmen. (Have the local or airport Hertz / car rental guys received cars back with dents, marks, etc. that the renter can't explain? Did these guys complain about paying for gas they didn't use?) Still, the shooter will want to bring the cars back before the guy has to wait too long. This may be why there's been 10 shootings in a confined area. The shooter can't stray too far and get the car back in a decent amount of time. Most owners of those cars won't be all-nighters, if you know what I mean.
And I disagree with the idea that the victims are completely random. Something is tying them together in this guy's head. We may not see the connection, but it's there. It isn't just convenience. There would be way too many convenient victims. Why were these particular ones chosen? Could be something as arcane as the name of the street they live on reminding the shooter of somebody...
P.S.--If you live in the area, and you own a garage, get an electric garage door opener and park the car without getting out of it until you're in the garage. Then press the door opener again and wait until it's closed before you get out. And make sure nobody has snuck in your garage as the door's closing.
P.P.S.--Besides the killer, somebody knows who's doing this.
Friday, August 19, 2016
Photo: The book's paperback cover, from a review at The View from the Blue House, because how could you not read a blog with that name?
A rare treat: A fantastically written novel that's also a helluva mystery.
A woman shot to death in a locked room--but no bullet. Vienna at the turn of the 20th Century. Sigmund Freud. Anti-Semitism. Gender bias. Another murder. Cultural references. Schubert and Lizst. Philosophy. The beginnings of modern-day detection. And beautiful writing. What else can you ask for?
All of these come together in A Death in Vienna, one of the better books I have read in some time. So good, in fact, that it makes me want to write (more, or consistently) again, after a bit of a bummer summer. This is indispensible for me, and I am grateful.
And did I mention that the book and its writing are intelligent? You won't feel pandered to or talked down to here. Nothing is spelled out for you, and there aren't any cliffhanger chapters that you or Annie Wilkes would have a problem with. (Well, okay, I didn't like one of them, a misunderstanding between a character and his wife. But, what the hell.)
This book is the first in a historical detective series of six books, the last published in 2012. A pity there haven't been more, but Tallis said he was worried about over-saturation and the books blurring together with nothing new to say. I have to admit: Jonathan Kellerman and, yes, maybe Robert B. Parker fell victims to this. Perhaps Tallis was wise to keep his series short. He has written many other things, and good writing is good writing, and the genre is essentially the same, so check them out, under both of his names. I have just written a note to myself to check area bookstores for all of Tallis's books, written under Frank Tallis and under F.R. Tallis.
You should do the same. Read this one first, as apparently reading them in order does matter for this series.
Very highly recommended, so much so that I have unapologetically written a short, gushing review. This one made me excited about getting back home and finishing errands so I could read more. What better compliment is there to give?
Monday, August 15, 2016
Photo: The book, from the author's own webpage. Here is an overview of the book itself.
Outstanding book that gives you a real feel for the lives and time of those involved. Written in a newspaper-like fashion, with no author intrusion at all--rare for this genre--and with a distant tone that is just right, almost too-distant, but not quite. Cast of real characters include serial killer Joseph Vacher, the French investigators, lawyers and judges involved in the trial, and his eleven known victims--there may have been as many as 25-30 total. One of my favorite investigators, Alphonse Bertillon, is covered a little. He was a French criminologist, one of the world's first accepted criminal profilers, and he's the author of one of my favorite, true-life quotes: "One can see only what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind." Feast on that for awhile.
Vacher was a psychotic, narcissistic, borderline schizophrenic vagabond who killed ten little shepherd boys (and one or two girls) and one old lady. He sodomized and brutalized the bodies after death. What made him unique amongst killers of his type, besides for how long he got away with it, and the list of ineptness he festooned in others who associated with him, was that he was one if the first to declare himself not responsible for his crimes due to insanity. The prosecution disproved this by showing that his MO was so consistent that the perpetration of his crimes must have taken some thought, and forethought. They also showed that his talent for leaving the area quickly to avoid capture showed that he could rationalize--otherwise, why go to such consistent lengths to avoid capture?
The author concludes that his case is also unique because he was declared fit to stand trial (therefore, sane), and responsible for his crimes (so, not insane), and yet also clearly had at least one mental illness--paranoid schizophrenia, with a healthy persecution complex and fits of sexual mania. Therefore, it's possible that he was responsible for his crimes, yet also classifiably mentally ill. The author says he believes Vacher would also be found guilty today, just as he was in the late 1890s. But this reviewer is not quite so sure.
Photo: Joseph Vacher posing in prison after his capture in 1897. From the book, and this New York Times Review website for the book. Vacher said that the hat symbolized his purity, and the keys, which he borrowed from a prison guard, symbolized the keys to heaven that he'd receive. Vachon believed he was protected by God and doing God's work. Just in case you were wondering
Certainly this case highlights the question of how much a mental illness can be said to make someone responsible, or not responsible, for his crimes. In today's heavily-diagnosed America (Donald Trump has been said lately to be harboring a potent textbook narcissistic disorder, and one wonders how fit he is to be President because of it. Look up the symptoms and I think you'll agree.), in which it seems that more people than ever may be diagnosed with a mental illness (and I mean that seriously and without judgment), this is a real question for our time. If a great many people are a classifiable something, how much does that make us culpable for our actions?
An interesting philosophical thought came up while I was reading. Another questions posed: If someone is guilty of murder (as Vacher was, and he was guillotined), and if that someone is responsible for his crime, yet is also suffering a mental illness that maybe helped instigate those crimes, can that person receive capital punishment? Again, where is the line drawn? Someone who is against capital punishment, as I am, would say No, no matter what the variables are. But those not against it, or even those on the fence, may use what I'll call the Rabid Lion Theory.
It goes loosely like this: If a lion is charging at you, obviously intent on killing you, don't you have the right to defend yourself and shoot it? If the answer is yes, what does it matter if it has rabies or not? You still have the right to kill it to defend yourself. But let's say it's foaming at the mouth and obviously has rabies. It's therefore, in a way, not responsible for its actions, as maybe it doesn't want to kill you, but the rabies is controlling it. (We can call this the Cujo Theory as well.) But even so, don't you have the right to defend yourself and kill it anyway, even if it's not responsible for its own actions?
Now, you're French society (or any society, including this one), and the rabid lion is Joseph Vacher (or any serial killer who has frequently escaped and who will obviously kill again). Don't you, as the society, have the right to defend yourself against the rabid killer, even if he's not responsible for his actions?
A real slippery slope, especially in these heavily-medicated times. And it's not going to get easier.
But I digress, a little. This book is more a history of really bad rural police work, really shoddy asylum practices, and a completely disorganized system of law if the murderer has the intelligence, good fortune, or whatever, to kill people in more than one jurisdiction. Surprisingly, this is still a big problem today (especially in these United States, and for a great number of reasons), but it was a catastrophic issue in the days before Interpol, before anyone thought to write down similarities of crimes committed across a large area over a number of years. Simply stated, nobody communicated well with each other, across provinces, just like today, where communication between departments, jurisdictions, states, and federal and regional agencies are slipshod and often testy.
This should sound very familiar for those who read about crime. Remember JonBenet? The local cops in Denver and the state and federal people were stepping on, over, and through each other immediately, screwing up the crime scene, the evidence, the witnesses, the testimonies, and every procedure and law, known and unknown to them, beyond repair. One of the guys in charge said the whole thing was botched beyond repair within a few hours of the reported crime.
And so it was with Vacher, until three guys started paying attention to some unsolved crimes, all of which involved the killing of young shepherd boys and girls, in the middle of rural nowhere, with the same MO (attack from behind, cut the throat, drag the body behind bushes or trees, sodomize and butcher the body quickly, change out of your clothes into clean clothes, and walk quickly away, often for a great many miles) and with the same descriptions of a vagabond seen in the area (short, bearded, scarred, gave off a dangerous vibe, couldn't talk correctly, and swelled foully because of yellow pus that drained from one ear). Sounds like something that anyone would put together, right? But with all the crimes happening all across very rural, nowhere France, before computers or phones, and with no system to keep track of such things, and no way to communicate?
So the history of forensics and crime is covered here, and it's all very informative and interesting.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
Photo, from Trump's Wikipedia page, after someone asked him how many minorities he liked.
Just kidding. But the photo is from his Wikipedia page. Click on the link; it's informative.
This is the first in a series of blogs about [see title]. Each will list reasons (in no particular order) not to vote for Trump, with maybe a sentence or two for each. I consider this a public service, since I believe, like never before, that this particular candidate is an actual national and worldwide disaster waiting to happen, and is therefore a serious danger to America and to the world at large. I do mean that seriously. (Full disclosure: I'm a registered Independent, but have always voted Democrat. I was eligible to vote for the first time for Clinton's first term.)
All of these points occurred before December 11, 2015.
Can you believe that? There's been so much more to go over since then! This blog's bulleted points all come from the this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37zvOZ17eSE
You should check it out. Open it in a separate tab or window, if you'd like to read this and refer to that. [Warning: YouTube videos often have inappropriate comments. Read those at your own risk--but feel free not to read them at all. The videos I link here may have such inappropriate comments. Consider this my disclaimer of such comments.]
1. He has clear and obvious bias towards foreigners. In this case, Mexicans: "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best . . . They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." (Seconds 1-31 of the video.)
NBC and Univision both severed their business relationship with Trump and his Miss Universe Organization, which put together his televised beauty pageants.
For those who think he's a great businessman, remember that. (More on his businesses in a later blog.)
2. He has equally-bigoted and biased staff, one of whom says to an American citizen: "It's not about you . . . Get out of my country." (32-116)
3. He mocks all sorts of people. This time, a reporter with a disability. (117-246)
4. Again, he has clear and obvious bias towards foreigners. This time, Muslims: "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States . . . These are people only believe in Jihad. They don't want our system . . . They have no respect for human life . . . " (247-345)
5. He attacks anyone who disagrees with him, even war heroes in his own party. In this case, John McCain. [Disclosure: I voted against McCain in Obama's first term, but I don't dislike McCain personally. I liked him when he told his own supporters that Obama was not a terrorist, though it would have been in his best interest to fan those flames. Trump would've. And, yes, McCain actually is a war hero.] "He's not a war hero . . . He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that [sic] weren't captured . . ."
P.S.--Rick Perry, who once had the most disliked video on all of YouTube (it was pulled when it reached one million "dislikes") when he published an ad blasting "gays," forcefully denounced Trump's statements. (The video linked here is the same video, but with comments allowed. Notice the "dislikes" on this one.) When you're being called to the carpet by Rick Perry, you have seriously hit rock bottom.
6. He blames the press for things he says, even when he is quoted verbatim.
Photo: Trump holding babies. The biggest baby is the one in the middle.
7. He has clear and obvious bias towards women. As Megyn Kelly points out, he has called women he doesn't like (i.e. Rosie O'Donnell) "fat pigs," "dogs," "slobs," and "disgusting animals."
8. He mocks all sorts of people. In this case, a woman who disagrees with him. Besides questioning her ability to do her job during his interview with her, he, of course, said about her that "she had blood coming out of her eyes, out of her whatever."
9. Like an immature child who lacks self-discipline, he uses Twitter as his soapbox, and, when referring to Kelly, said on it that "we can gut her."
10. As in the above example, he seems to advocate violence towards people he dislikes. (More later.)
11. Like all narcissists, he talks almost completely about himself, and about those who are against him. Where are the issues?
12. When Rand Paul hits a home run against you, like he does starting at 8:33 in the clip, you're in trouble. He correctly pointed out Trump's lack of verbal self-control, his lack of leadership qualities, and his overall immature behavior. Take a look.
More to come . . .
Friday, August 5, 2016
Photo: The photo we all know, (but how accurate to his personality is it?) from Ben Franklin's Wikipedia page. All of the photos in this entry come from the same page.
(Copied and pasted shamelessly from my Goodreads page. Yes, Goodreads. Don't judge.)
Actually, I have the 1932 hardcover, with red boards and very small print, that this paperback is taken from; but I couldn't find that in the listings, and I'm too lazy to create my own for it, and if you've been able to deal with this sentence, you should be able to read this book, no problem, though Franklin used bigger words. There are lots of semicolons and commas and pedantic words, but that was the style of self-labelled philosophers at the time, so the reader has to deal with it.
Though, to be fair, the reader should deal with it, because this is worth reading. I found a lot to like about this, including:
--Ben Franklin came from almost nothing, and became one of the most known, liked, respected, and wealthy men of his time.
--He wrote plainly about how to get this done, and it amounted to just a few things:
* work your ass off, at printing, business in general, or whatever the hell it is you do
* want to work your ass off; want to succeed
* if you see a good thing, pounce on it, fast, before someone else does
* keep your word, even if it's to your (slight) detriment
* form lots of clubs, and be friends with other good businessmen (and men in general)
* moderate, in all things, except business while young
* want to be a decent person, and strive for it
* if you write well and work hard, you'll be known for it
(This last is surprisingly true, then and now. Most people, IMO, don't write well or work consistently, daily, hard. I'm one of the more active people I know, and I have been disgustingly lazy this summer.)
You may not know that Ben Franklin came from Boston, MA; moved to Newport, RI; then to New York City, then to London, England, then, finally, to Philadelphia. He moved around a lot, mentally and physically, and became a successful (and busy) diplomat after he became a very successful businessman and printer. He never stayed still, and I'll bet his energy was at times difficult for his wife to deal with. (I offer this to you from personal, bitter experience.)
He was one of the most fit and physical guys around in his youth. Written in three stages when he was older (the last time just a year or so before he died), his Autobiography (edited; not in full) comes across as plainly written as he was plainly spoken, and it pulls no punches. It shows he was known for his rowing and swimming prowess when younger, and he speaks highly--as did most guys of his time--of long walks. It seems he was quite different when younger, physically, than the rather robust portraits we have of him as an older man. But who knows? The grim expression of his mouth and lips in portraits (he often looks like he was biting down hard on something) was the common trope in paintings of the time; George Washington looks like he has just finished biting someone's face off, by comparison. So were these guys bitter, too-serious old men, in pain from their wooden false teeth? Who knows, but Franklin's writing doesn't make him seem that way.
(Though, a quick note about his teeth: He was a very successful printer, of course, and he did all or most of the work himself for most of his printing career, so he put a lot of lead in his mouth, between his teeth, when he was setting type. My father, a typesetter himself early in his career [which he missed when he got promoted, though he preferred the better pay and benefits], said he put heavy lead type in his mouth all the time when setting it, and so did everybody else. If he did that in the 1960s and 1970s, Franklin did that in the 1700s--and they shared the same dental fate as well.)
Another quick note: It seems Franklin was a helluva salesman, as all of his money as a printer came, of course, from subscriptions to his newspaper. As you may imagine, he sold those himself, as well. Since he was very strong at interpersonal communication (he joined lots of philosophical clubs, and started a lot of those, and social clubs), this may have been easy for him. As I said, he was well liked; it seems that nobody tired of him asking them to buy subscriptions to everything, from his paper, to his Almanack, to other pamphlets and start-ups of his friends, social and political.
And--he made a lot of money from almost-Ponzi schemes. He'd take on apprentices, or help printers from other states, and when they got situated with their own businesses, they had to give him a percentage of their business for X number of years. This would sooner or later end, but I'll bet it was part of a contract. Lots of guys happily signed up for it, so it seems to be a mostly win-win for everyone involved.
He also had lots of trouble with the wrong friends when he was younger. He'd at first make business decisions or friendships with men who proved to be unreliable, drunkards (a big problem), lazy, greedy, or inept. Surprisingly, he never broke off these friendships. They did, in bitterness of his success, and he was always glad to be rid of them--but he always waited for them to break up with him! I was glad to see this, as I've made similar mistakes over the years. Sometimes I did the breaking-up, sometimes they did, but I was always glad it ended. Who needs the drama?
(Doesn't look like the Ben Franklin we're used to, does it? Painted during his lifetime by Benjamin Wilson, in 1759.)
A benefit for Ben Franklin in Philadelphia at the time: No major papers or magazines yet; no monopoly on the time or money of the successful. The literacy rate, of course, was low, but I'll bet the time spent reading of those who could read was a lot higher than it is now. I know a helluva lot of college-educated people who never read. Don't you? Franklin's paper and other printed material sort of formed a monopoly at the time in Philly.
Franklin started the first public library in the colonies, and the first volunteer fire departments. He helped set up successful postal delivery and was the first Postmaster General. We know about his kite and electricity experiments (not covered in his book), but he also had hundreds (!) of other patents, for things like printing presses (obviously), wood-burning stoves, and who knows what else. He just glosses over this accomplishment.
He spent a lot of time with his personal blueprint for personal and moral success, which I'll go over in a different blog. (Go to stevenbelanger[dot]blogspot[dot]com.) This section of his book is what most people remember about his Almanack--another huge success never gone into in his book. In fact, there are no aphorisms here--no, "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Ever see the magnet that has the second half crossed off and replaced with, "Tired as hell"?
Anyway, the very surprising thing about his Autobiography is what's not in it. You would think that a successful printer would print a lot about his business success, political success, scientific success, social success, personal success, or his moral, social or political views--but he never did, outside of his Almanack (which everyone knew he wrote). But his press was never a publishing house. There were lots of successful, literate guys with libraries--which he mentions frequently and of course approved of--but it seems he was just too busy to print his own Autobiography.
He finally did when he was much older--while he was bored in France or in England in one of his diplomatic posts later in life. He had a very detailed outline, starting from his very early Boston days, but he only finished a very small percentage of it while alive. No Almanack. No Declaration of Independence! No Revolutionary War! No coverage of his diplomatic successes, before or after the war. (The British and French, apparently, loved him. So did a lot of women over there, if you catch my drift.) He was already a widower when the war came, and I think he re-married afterwards, but was never at home. I'm guessing that he spent a lot more time in France and England in his life than he ever spent in Philadelphia. This is definitely true after the war; he was a very successful diplomat in France. He served in this capacity from 1776 to 1785, and he died in 1790.
I could go on. Very, very interesting life. Very interesting guy. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Photo: from KirkusReviews.com (which gave it a good review), at this website.
In America today, we are living through days that juxtapose intelligence versus blind faith. This book shows, as I also believe, that you can have blind faith without sacrificing intelligence. That you can believe and still think, and that you don't have to believe what someone tells you, but should instead read, think and believe for yourself. Having blind faith in someone like Jesus is fine; having blind faith in what someone tells you Jesus said and thought maybe is not. Why not read the Bible, think about it yourself, read about the Bible, think about that, and then read the Bible again? I did that, and still do. I don't know yet what I believe, but whatever it is, I assure you, it's mine, and not anyone else's. You're responsible for your beliefs, so they'd better be your own.
This book, blessedly, says that. Father Alex is a Gospel teacher, but not a blind believer. He's very religious, but doesn't believe everything--and for good reason. He reads and he thinks for himself, and his beliefs are stronger, and more pure, because of it.
A good lesson for us all. In politics, in religion, in everything.
Very well-written, intelligent and character-focused novel about a murder, an exhibit in Rome, and a "fifth gospel" that involves different branches of Christianity and the Shroud of Turin. There's a lot of biblical history here; never is it too much, or too heavy. There's a lot about the daily life of an Eastern Orthodox priest (who can marry and procreate) and his son in Rome. This man's brother, also an important priest, is accused of murder, and he still hasn't recovered from his wife's departure.
Despite the very good, but not over-long or overly-descriptive writing, and despite the biblical history, the Papal history, the Roman history, and the mystery itself, the crux of this book is actually the relationship between father and son. They need to survive together, which is difficult in itself, but also must survive the abandonment a wife, a mother, and, later, of a brother and of friends. All they have, it seems, is each other, and it's going to have to be enough. Yet he wants to teach his son to do what's right, including thinking for yourself amidst much theological noise. He also wants to live an authentic and honest life, and to teach his son to do the same.
We read some really good writing about these characters, about characterizations, about Rome, and a Catholic trial, and a lot of history that never bores or overwhelms. The mystery is not over when you think it is, and the characters ring true, as does the final end of this mystery.
It's told in first-person, present-tense, which is an interesting choice. Normally an author chooses this tense when he wants to keep the writing thrilling, with a you-are-there kind of feel. That's not necessary here, and isn't really accomplished, and it's not a failure. My guess is that Caldwell chose this tense to make the reader like he's walking in Rome, in this mystery, with Alex, the main character, and with his son. This is done as much for the local flavor and sightseeing, like the reader is walking with a travel guide through Rome, through the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's, through the streets. It's a good choice, though I didn't realize it until the middle of the book and saw its effects.
This book took 10 years for Caldwell to write, and it apparently led to a lot of hardship, as he mentions in his acknowledgements. Ten years is a long time to follow up a monster best-seller (2004's The Rule of Four); this apparently upset his publisher at the time, and they apparently let him know it, probably by taking away an advance, or canceling a contract, or something like that. But he stuck with it, and his agent stuck with him--ironic, as the main theme of this book is faith, strength, integrity and abandonment. Art imitates life.
If you're interested in any of the things described above, read this book. It's not as esoteric as this genre often can be, and there's no judgement, and there's a fair share of intelligence and deep emotion--a hard balance. I didn't like The Rule of Four, but I took a chance on this. I'm glad I did.