In the centuries-spanning saga from Swain (The Curious Habits of Man: Essays and Effluence, 2013, etc.), a brotherhood of Rome’s most powerful men struggles to keep a secret that could undo Catholicism.
According to the Bible, Jesus rose three days after his Crucifixion and once again walked among the living. The prologue to Swain’s novel paints a different portrait: five of Jesus’ followers—including Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus—form the Guild of the Cloth, which hides Christ’s body and perpetuates the resurrection myth. Successive Guild members guard Jesus’ resting place without any trouble until 1512, when Bishop Galimberti, worried that French invaders might uncover the Guild’s secret, moves the body to a new location without his brethren’s consent. Poisoned soon thereafter, Galimberti leaves the Guild a letter explaining his actions. The name of the new hiding place, he writes, has been inscribed “among the artworks that adorn His Holiness’ sanctuary.” A few chapters later, the novel leaps to 2008, when an earthquake shakes loose plaster fragments from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. As tourists flee the church, antiquarian book dealer Christof von Albrecht makes “the most fateful decision of his life” and steals several pieces of Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Tasked with the chapel’s restoration, a Harvard fresco expert discovers a mysterious message scrawled underneath the ceiling’s plaster—but pieces containing the rest of the message have gone missing. Thus begins a race between the Guild and the Vatican to track down von Albrecht and solve the puzzle Galimberti left behind. Swain crams many of the novel’s early chapters with historical exposition that does little to advance the story: “[It] is an exciting time for [Florence], both politically and creatively, with names like Michelangelo and Machiavelli on the minds and lips of nearly every citizen.” Once the plot gets rolling, however, Swain’s grip never lets up as he deftly unveils each double cross. His prose likewise abandons cliché in favor of rich, haunting descriptions, including monastery walls that “admit heat only grudgingly” and a dead man found with a “pen clutched so fiercely in his twisted hand that the fingers must be broken to release it.”
Once it clears some initial hurdles, Swain’s labyrinthine novel moves effortlessly from each wicked deception to the next.