HarperCollins Publishers: New York
In this, the seventh “Body Farm Novel,” written by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson (collectively known as Jefferson Bass), the authors have fashioned a mystery that takes the protagonist, Dr. Bill Brockton, far from his familiar surroundings in and around the Body Farm and the reader into realms of imagination not usually anticipated from this series whose focus has been on crime scene forensics.
By way of brief background, Dr. Bill Brockton is the fictional doppelganger of Dr. Bass, who some 30 years ago, founded the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Center, better known as the Body Farm. This unique facility gathers scientific data regarding the decomposition of human cadavers, both natural and man-made, to aid forensic investigations by law enforcement agencies.
While aiding the FBI and DEA in the investigation of the killing of an undercover agent, Brockton receives an international call that his graduate assistant, Miranda Lovelady, has suffered a ruptured appendix and has begged that he come Avignon, France, where she has been working on an archaeological project. He literally drops everything to fly to France but on his arrival in Marseilles, he is greeted by Miranda herself and her project leader, French archaeologist Stefan Beauvoir! The summons was a ruse to bring Brockton to France to consult on a wondrous discovery the two have made. Deep within the bowels of the Palace of the Popes (constructed during the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Papacy in Avignon during the 14th Century) an ossuary – a box containing human remains—has been discovered. The ossuary was sealed under the authority of the Pope and featured etchings of a cross and a lamb—symbols of Christ. The skeleton bore signs of crucifixion and the intriguing question—could this possibly be the remains of Christ himself? Or is it the skeleton of a 14th Century man who, for some reason, was secreted away in the Treasure Room of the Palace of the Popes?
Brockton has been summoned, under admittedly dodgy circumstances, to help solve the mystery of the crucified man. The authors render a vividly clear description of the forensic investigation that Brockton undertakes, including a facial reconstruction of the victim done in Virginia, based on a CT scan run in an Avignon hospital and uploaded via computer to the forensic artist in the U.S. The results are stunning in that the results render a face very much like that of the ghostly visage on the Shroud of Turin!
What follows is a highly imaginative tale that presents a highly speculative explanation for the origin of the Shroud and how it ties into the mysterious remains of the crucified man in the ossuary. The search for truth is not without its present day dangers, however, as Brockton, Miranda and Stefan Beauvoir become the targets of a shadowy conspiracy whose goal seems to be possession of the skeletal remains—but to what purpose and to what ends?
The book is not without its flaws, most of which seem to center upon the protagonist Bill Brockton himself. He demonstrates a stunning ignorance of European history and culture, especially for an academic of international repute. But perhaps he slept through his undergraduate Western Civ classes so he would be awake during his human osteology class! The attraction he feels for Miranda, his grad assistant, subordinate, and many years his junior, is a little on the creep side—especially in the 21st Century.
But this is a very clever and inventive novel that weaves real history and real historical figures—both from the 14th Century and the present– into its very fabric. The denouement may be unnecessarily dark and overly byzantine but it remains a well-crafted and well-researched tale of imaginative historical fiction. It is also a loving homage to the city of Avignon and its descriptive flairs and attention to local detail is admirable.
Three trowels for The Inquisitor’s Key.