A writer known for his satires of Washington, D.C., takes aim at religion in 16th-century Europe, where a relics trader is forced to steal one of Catholicism’s most coveted objects.
Buckley (But Enough About You, 2014, etc.) roams far from his usual inside-the-Beltway turf while tilting at earlier establishment types in this comic historical novel, his 16th book. In the year 1517, Dismas is the Relic Master at the high end of the holy-bone trade for two competing collectors, Frederick of Saxony and Albrecht of Mainz. When Dismas learns that his nest egg has been smashed by a Bernie Madoff precursor, he agrees to a scheme that depends on Albrecht’s envy of Frederick’s larger collection. But Dismas and his partner in crime, the German painter Dürer, are caught trying to pull the linen over Albrecht’s eyes with a fake shroud—Christ’s burial cloth—and the result is a penance compelling Dismas to steal the “real” shroud, “the most closely guarded relic in Christendom.” What ensues might be pitched Hollywood-style as The Princess Bride meets Ocean’s XIII. Dismas, Dürer, and three German mercenaries navigate a string of mishaps and brothels and rescue a beautiful damsel only to find themselves competing with another shroud thief. Buckley finds easy targets with the rampant abuses in relics, which make money off the laity’s guilt and gullibility. Dismas has heard of a dozen foreskins from the infant Jesus and enough arrows from the perforation of St. Sebastian “to supply the entire Roman army.” The writer also works in the contemporaneous rise of Martin Luther and the campaign he was able to wage against such abuses under the curious protection of Frederick, the great relic collector.
With torture and swordplay, there’s more (lowercase) gore than Washington generally offers and more fun than most readers might expect even from twisted history.