Wednesday, September 01, 2004


Notes from the making of a bestseller.

by Raelynn Hillhouse

Copyright © 2004 by Raelynn Hillhouse

(Aug. 29) Well, you heard it here first. In the Aug. 19 blog entry below, I warned you how if you’re reading RIFT ZONE and you think something is too far-fetched, chances are it’s pulled from real life—my life. Today in a fun review in the Detroit Free Press a reviewer wrote, "She [my heroine] is pressed into service (somewhat unbelievably) by the East Germans."

Somewhat unbelieveably, huh?

Guess what.

Whitney's recruitment by the East German secret police was lifted from my life, but toned down to make believable fiction. (And to add a dash of irony, the event was when I was a Michigan grad student…)

So I should've said in the essay below, that truth is stranger than fiction not only because fiction has an editor, but because fiction has reviewers as well…

Check out the blog entry below to find the even more far-fetched reality of the spy world.



Notes from the making of a bestseller.

by Raelynn Hillhouse

Copyright © 2004 by Raelynn Hillhouse

(Aug. 19). As my debut novel about a female smuggler finds its way into bookstores and readers' hands, it seemed like a good time to write about the real life experiences the book is based on. If you’re reading RIFT ZONE and you think something is too far-fetched, chances are it’s pulled from real life—my life. As I wrote the spy novel, time and time again I found myself having to tone down things that had really happened to me because no one would believe it. I started to understand why truth is stranger than fiction: Truth doesn't have to get past an editor.

Take the first chapter of RIFT ZONE, for instance. It opens with scenes in which the East German secret police try to set up the main character in a sting by luring her into working for them. They hope to entrap her by convincing her to smuggle a decrepit Western-made computer to the West, then nail her at the border for stealing state property. They even follow her through the Wall to the West.

Sounds far-fetched, huh?

Nope. It happened to me. But the Stasi tried to entrap me using a Xerox machine, not a computer. You see, back behind the Wall, you had to have a security clearance just to operate a simple copy machine. The clearance wasn’t restricted to those working with the darkest of state secrets, but to anyone and everyone who was near a copier. The paranoid commie regimes didn’t want to risk that someone could copy anti-communist literature or even worse—set up a free underground press. Thus, there weren’t many copiers in the East and the security clearance wasn’t given out easily. (Not to mention East Germans really didn’t want to invite the secret police to root around in their past to process their clearance!) But a novel with the secret police doing a sting with a portable Xerox machine seemed too over the top, so I toned it down and wrote about a computer instead.

I lived in West Berlin in the mid-1980s the summer before I was to study in East Berlin as a guest of a government-sponsored propaganda agency, The League for Friendship of the Peoples. It was a given that the League was more or less a Stasi front organization for international espionage (think USIA & CIA), but their sponsorship was only way that I could get access to this self-isolated state for an entire year.

Not long before I was scheduled to move over to the East, roommates and I started noticing the telltale clicking of a bugged phone (or at least telltale for old-fashioned phones and antiquated phone systems.) Then I got the call from my contact, Egon, at the League.

At the time there were less than a dozen phone lines between both halves of the city of 3 million and it took hours and hours of dialing before striking it lucky and getting a line. Somehow my guy managed to get lucky every day that August—and at just about the same time each day. I suspected Egon wasn’t playing the same phone lottery as everyone else.

Egon tried to convince me I could help out the League by schlepping a broken Xerox machine through East Berlin, through the Wall and to their special repairman in the West. He wasn't suggesting that I smuggle it, but carry it through the border under the noses of the Stasi border guards. If I complied, he saw no problem in sponsoring me for a multiple entry visa that would grant me a privilege only a handful of civilians of any nationality had: permission to cross through the Berlin Wall at will.

We went through a crazy dance for months. My visa would get approved, then mysteriously revoked. I stalled. And I stalled. The Stasi was not an organization that took rejection well, so I figured it was best to play hard to get. I came up with every possible reason why I didn't want to entrap myself with that damn copier. For every excuse, Egon had a work-around:

Worried the guards would think I was stealing State property? No problem. He'd write the Stasi border guards a note. Too heavy? He'd carry it most of the way for me. Too heavy in the West? They'd even spring for a taxi in the West and advised that I cross at Charlie instead of Friedrichstrasse because it would be easier to catch a taxi there—although he'd never been across the border. The cost of repair? Not to worry. Even though it was illegal for him to have West German Marks, he just happened to have some in their petty cash.

Yeah, right.

And my visa? It was going to take a few more days…

The Stasi was deadly, but it also had a Keystone cop/B-spy movie side to it as well:

Once in East Germany, a tiny police car packed with 5 guys, screeched to a halt not far from where I was traipsing through the woods. I watched as a guy with dark glasses, black leather jacket and an attaché case handcuffed to his arm popped from the car, then disappeared into the brush.

I’ve seen people (clandestinely, they thought) open up hollow coins on the border to flash a secret badge to the Stasi border guard.

In a restaurant in Krakow, Poland I had a stranger come up and ask to swap chairs with me—not places, but the actual chair, with the explanation that there might not seem to be any difference to me, but there was a big one to him. The chairs looked identical, but we can only guess that one was wired a little differently…

In Prague I was once awakened in my hotel room by a sound suddenly coming from the nightstand--that of reel-to-reel tape recorder automatically rewinding.

Now would you honestly believe any of this if it were in a spy novel? Probably not. Implausible and over the top are the words the critics would grab for. But these things really happened to me. So my challenge with RIFT ZONE was to recreate that bizarre, shadowy world of spies in a way that was both true to the actual historical circumstances, but toned down enough to seem plausible to the reader. And that Xerox machine? They finally gave up. But not until after I altered a few of their documents and the People's Police dutifully issued me that visa that allowed me free passage after all.

But then it got revoked again…

And then there was the time the border checkpoint was closed and I had no visa, but I talked the border guards into allowing me to enter East Berlin anyway….Nah, would never make it past my editor.

Publishers Marketplace: Raelynn Hillhouse

Monday, August 30, 2004

Pop Esoterica!
by Ingrid D. Rowland

Despite prevailing gossip in the groves of academe, people still like their Renaissance, with its prancing nymphs, striplings in hose, and Venus on the half-shell, an endless Primavera with Lorenzo de' Medici presiding benignly over the pagan rites. The fact that this Renaissance is a myth gives them no pause whatsoever, nor should it: the Renaissance was always a myth, and also, on occasion, a chivalric lay or an instructive fable, depending on who told the story, why, and to whom. For Angelo Poliziano, currying the favor of Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano with superabundant talent, the Medici brothers posed as modern Arthurian knights in Stanze per la Giostra, or Verses for the Joust. Botticelli, in the same years, acted as the city's great mythographer, painting glossy riddles in tempera for a restless Medici cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. If Machiavelli sent it all up with masterful cynicism in The Prince, he did so believing in another myth of Florence, the city as free Etruscan republic. Whatever their individual cynicism or dashed hopes, they all persisted in regarding Florence as a divinely favored place, every one.

People today still like this Renaissance of Poliziano, Botticelli, and the brothers Medici, because it stands for an idea of civilization, no matter what the poststructuralists say, and in these strange times an idea of civilization is something we desperately need. The depths of that need can be judged from the tone--and the popularity--of thrillers otherwise as disparate as The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four, both of which take Renaissance Florence as their shining image of civility, and quite specifically of Western civility. In a world where a rich turbaned sheik takes aim at skyscrapers, discotheques, and train stations in the name of holy war, these books argue, with their genre's implicit conservatism, that the West has contributed something more to humanity than McDonald's, cowboy presidents, and the stock market. The extraordinary success of such pointedly cultural thrillers indicates a longing to take the Western heritage seriously, to accord it some degree of honor rather than subject it to yet another critique. This is not by any means a discouraging development.

Despite The Da Vinci Code's title, however, the standing symbol of Western civility in both this best-seller and in The Rule of Four is not, in fact, the multifarious and frustratingly incomplete work of Leonardo da Vinci, but rather the paintings executed by his contemporary Alessandro Filipepi, whom we know by his nickname "the Little Barrel," or Botticelli. The Rule of Four explicitly singles out Botticelli for two reasons: one is clearly the quality of Botticelli's painting itself, with its hard-gloss tempera surfaces, sinuous lines, and crystal-clear perspectival spaces. This linear clarity is essential to Renaissance Florence, the limpidly geometric architecture of which sits solidly on a foursquare ancient Roman street plan. Leonardo moved on from Florence to foggy Milan, where his painting began to explore the interplay of light and shadow and took on the darkness, the ambiguity, the indefinable edges that make all his later work as enigmatic as Mona Lisa's smile.

Botticelli also figures in The Rule of Four because of what happened to him in life: some of his paintings were destroyed between 1494 and 1496 by followers of the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. In those years, Savonarola's disciples, called piagnoni or "snivelers" owing to their weepy acts of repentance, set huge bonfires of the vanities, lit to purge a society as devoted to its own version of conspicuous consumption as our own. Some of Botticelli's more licentious--that is, mythological--paintings were apparently flung into the flames along with jewelry, clothing, cosmetics, and frivolous books; and he has sometimes been identified as a piagnone himself. In any case, he fell victim to religious fanaticism, at least until the day when Savonarola's power-lust came to be seen as a vanity in its own right and the Florentines lit another refining fire in their main piazza, this time for the Dominican demagogue and two of his associates. (Another victim of religious zeal was Botticelli's near contemporary the great German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, whose hands would be broken by Lutheran fanatics--but sixteenth-century Nuremberg was swept away by events in the twentieth century as sixteenth-century Florence was not, and Riemenschneider's adversaries were not punished so neatly.)

For the authors of The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four, Botticelli's combination of lucid form and riddling content speaks of initiation into higher truths about humanity and civility, truths rooted in the traditions of Greece and Rome at the dawn of Western civilization, and transmitted secretly down the centuries. Thrillers, after all, thrive on secrecy, on the distinction between appearance and reality. Their most successful recent incarnation was as Cold War spy novels; and writers of thrillers, like their readers, are still searching a post-communist world for the next set of black-and-white certainties.

Christianity, another essential component of Western civilization, appears in a more ambiguous light. The Da Vinci Code centers on a secret cache of documents, guarded by a secret sect of adepts, that, if revealed, would bring down the Church--in this novel meaning Roman Catholicism--by documenting that Jesus had not died on the cross and been resurrected from the dead, but instead had moved to France with his wife Mary Magdalene to found the Merovingian dynasty of French kings and to keep alive a series of pagan mysteries that included ritual sex and cultivation of what the book's characters call, with striking pedantry, "the sacred feminine." (This complex of beliefs seems to consist of the Mutterrecht of the nineteenth-century mythographer Bachofen strained through the sieve of the present-day New Age goddess cult).

The Da Vinci Code would have us believe that the descendants of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their distant scion King Clovis have been guarded since ancient Roman times by a knightly group called the Priory of Sion, whose grand masters seem to have been exclusively French except for two fifteenth-century Florentines, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, both of whom are said by Dan Brown to have left hints about this secret stewardship in their paintings. The evidence that he supplies for their membership in this French confraternity is so superficial that even a drowsy traveler engrossed in the action can swallow it without a thought--or without a look at an actual painting. Brown's best-known assertions in this regard have to do with Leonardo's Last Supper. Through the conversations of his characters (who exist more to spout instructive "facts" than to converse), Brown identifies the figure to the right of Jesus (the figure to our left) in this great, ruined fresco as Mary Magdalene, who is, according to his own claims, the wife of Christ. On the basis of this assertion, Brown claims that Jesus and his consort spell out a gigantic M with their arms and bodies. The V-shape of the space between them is presumed to refer to Mary Magdalene's womb, the figurative chalice that is the real Holy Grail, and the prime example in Western tradition of the sacred feminine.

The problem with this ad hoc iconography is that readers of The Da Vinci Code may come to believe that by accepting the conventionally flimsy premises of a thriller plot, they have learned something about Leonardo and his art. Brown encourages this delusion by professing at the beginning of his book that what he says is true. But in this claim, as in the rest of his narrative, he is writing fiction. As the Bible makes plain, Leonardo's blond bombshell is a man, the "Beloved Disciple" who has been resting in his Lord's bosom, identified by immemorial Christian tradition as the apostle John. Leonardo's portrayal of the Beloved Disciple as an attractive young blond fits right into the conventions of every other Last Supper painted in Italy in his generation. Given the villainous perversity of Brown's gay characters, all of them devoutly Catholic (the corrupt cardinal and his catamite-driver, the hit man from Opus Dei), one wonders what it is that really drives him to perform a sex change on the Beloved Disciple as embodied in Leonardo's admittedly androgynous youth. For Leonardo's famous sfumato, or "smoke effect," extends beyond the modeling of his figures to the very ambiguity of their being.

The fresco of the Last Supper once dominated one end of the dining room, or refectory, of a religious community in Milan, reminding the friars that through their faith they transformed every meal into a last supper in the presence of Jesus. There are profound historical and spiritual connections between ancient Greco-Roman sacrificial ritual and the sacrifice of the Jewish Passover, both of which together informed early Christian ritual; but what Leonardo chooses as the focus for his own version of the story is a human drama. He depicts this Passover meal at the moment just after Jesus has announced that one of his twelve disciples will betray him that night. Jesus lets the terrible news settle in with an expression of calm resignation, suffused with an infinite sadness that can still be seen through the painting's ravaged surface. (Leonardo, as often, had tried a new technique in this painting, and it failed to improve on the old, painstaking traditional method.) Saint Peter, hand pointed to his chest, has shot up from the table and is crying, "Who, me?" The Beloved Disciple, who has been leaning against Jesus up to now, has pulled back, faint with horror: "Not I!"

Leonardo is showing us, as he showed those Milanese friars five hundred years ago, that terror jolts us all into stark solitude. The friars would have recognized that they, too, should stand on guard against the complacency, the human weakness, that might lead them to betray their own faith in their Lord. Meanwhile, of course, Judas Iscariot has already turned his friend over for thirty pieces of silver; and Leonardo shows the guilt-ridden informer knocking over the saltcellar, the most precious object on the table. It takes more than a human spell-out ("M" is for Magdalene, "V" is for ... viscera?) to convey the dark ambiguities that stand at the heart of Leonardo's great picture.

Along with its occasional forays into art history lite, The Da Vinci Code introduces us to the Priory of Sion's most recent grand master, whose profession is director of the Louvre, at least until his murder at the very beginning of the book. This excellent Frenchman had worked, in other words, right in front of the Leonardos and Botticellis that will gradually disclose his secret life as a hierophant of the sacred feminine to the thriller's protagonists, and to its readers. The dramatic manner of his death shows how well versed he has been in the Last Supper's alphabetic arcane: bleeding to death from a gunshot wound inflicted in one of the museum's galleries, he strips naked, writes a pentagram on his belly, scrawls secret messages in fluorescent pen, and then arranges himself in the pose of a famous Leonardo drawing. The Frenchman's presence of mind--and absence of incapacitating pain--is plausible only according to the loose logic of pulp fiction.

The Rule of Four also involves a secret hoard, which, like the sacred feminine in The Da Vinci Code, has been threatened with suppression by the Church. This time the Church is circumscribed to the time and the person of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, although the secrets targeted for suppression once again include pagan rites and abundant sex, once again hinted at by a litter of clues in Botticelli's paintings. (But then how many secrets do not involve wild sex and pagan rites, from Euripides's Bacchae to Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever"?) The key that enables the protagonist of The Rule of Four to unlock these "pagan mysteries in the Renaissance" (to borrow a phrase from the great scholar Edgar Wind) lies in a dense, beautifully illustrated novel called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a real book that was published in 1499, although one less impossibly rare than the young authors of this thriller imply.

The chapter headings of the Hypnerotomachia spell out a curious acrostic that has puzzled everyone who discerns it: "Francesco Colonna Loved Polia Very Much." (Who was he? Who was she? Scholars still do not know for sure.) Working from this genuine premise, the authors suppose that the mysterious work hides a whole series of secret messages, each disguised by a different kind of fifteenth-century code. As deciphered by the novel's present-day protagonists, the messages add up to a ciphered cry for help from Francesco Colonna to his fifteenth-century readers: Savonarola and the snivelers are closing in on him. Never mind that Savonarola was incinerated a good three years before the Hypnerotomachia's publication. The plot of The Rule of Four thus exploits the Hypnerotomachia's most salient quality (after its marvelously sensuous illustrations, some of them reproduced in The Rule of Four): its nearly impenetrable prose, which from the beginning has either fascinated or repelled readers. Those who have soldiered on through Francesco Colonna's dense jungle of strange adjectives and slow, slow action have often read deep meaning into the text, while others, such as the sixteenth-century jurist Antonio Agustin, stopped at the sexy pictures. One disgusted reader in the sixteenth century put a warning in the flyleaf of a copy of the book now preserved in the Vatican Library: "it's a boring novel of sorts." But the pictures are not boring in the least.

Which is why the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili looks like such prime material for hiding secret messages. Nobody would write like Francesco Colonna if they could help it, including Colonna himself. The book sold poorly.
But then he used "elephantine" to describe a nymph's ivory-pale leg. He called Ionic columns Doric. He was trying very hard to write a beautiful and mysterious novel, so hard that the metaphorical drops of sweat plop large on every page and we seem to hear the author's indecorous groans as he strains to reach for another arcane metaphor. In the meantime, The Rule of Four spices the code-breaking by making it a competition among various species of cultural fauna: the drunken Princeton professor, the suave New York art dealer, the obsessive Midwestern bookseller, the obsessive undergraduate on scholarship, the graduate student (whose obsessiveness goes without saying). It often seems as if the characters' behavior is driven less by curiosity about a five-hundred-year-old steamy novel than by an immanent preoccupation with wealth and status, symbolized by membership in those Princeton eating clubs whose rites of passage may be as opaque to outsiders as the ponderous prose of the Hypnerotomachia.

Thrillers are a conservative genre. Like Greek tragedies and murder mysteries, they upset society's balance in order to right it, and to re-affirm it in the righting. Like Wagner's operas, they keep an unresolved chord going for hours just to set up the sheer biological joy of its final resolution. A good thriller must provide comfort after the thrill. Many people have read The Da Vinci Code while riding on airplanes, senses irked into a state of low-grade discomfort and dulled by oxygen deprivation, dehydration, and slipping time zones. The characters in a thriller should not grab them too insistently or they will weep into their chicken Chernobyl; the plot must obey only the logic of the jet-lagged, and no suggestion of philosophical anarchy should threaten to bring down the premises by which airline passengers continue to believe that lift plus thrust will keep them airborne to their destination.

Thus The Da Vinci Code may threaten to bring down the Church, but its heroes hail from other safe bastions of civilization: the Louvre, Harvard, and the police, whose members act with courage and ingenuity to keep civilization secure for ourselves and our descendants. At the same time, we learn that Leonardo and Botticelli have been sending out their own beacon of civility from Renaissance Florence, under the approving gaze of the Medici. Indeed, despite some close calls, the Church itself survives the conniving of The Da Vinci Code's gay villains, both the corrupt cardinal and the hit man from the powerful and very real Catholic organization called Opus Dei. Dan Brown's most daring move is to insert a topical twist into the novel: a new pope, the successor to John Paul II, deprives Opus Dei of the favor that it enjoys in our own world under the present papacy and sets Catholicism on a new, liberal course. Now that is real re-affirmation of the social order! Quietly, all the while, the dynasty founded by Jesus and Mary Magdalene is revealed to have lived on from generation to generation, lovingly watched over by the Priory of Sion; and only a churl would note that some two and a half centuries ago the French decided to consign the divine right of kings to the guillotine.

Yet if it is the thriller's place to comfort souls in transit, so, too, it is the scholar's pleasure to take potshots at pretensions to historical truth in potboilers or on screen--to point out with stolid glee that, say, every fresco in Gladiator does not in fact need to look as if it had gone through the eruption of Vesuvius, that Roman army generals in the field were unlikely to tote around marble busts of family members, and that pitching catapults against trees is a waste of good shot (ancient war machines were designed to knock down city walls). Only this kind of unregenerate stickler, perhaps, would wonder what precisely the Priory of Sion's incriminating documents were written on, papyrus or parchment, and what kind of bureaucrat drafted them for what kind of archive; or insist that "Da Vinci" is the one thing Leonardo would never have been called in his lifetime, any more than "Of Arc" was Joan's surname. At the same time, scholarly sticklers are precisely the sorts of people that The Da Vinci Code praises for working (as the book might put it in characteristic breathless italics) in the Vatican Secret Archives, the most exclusive archives in the world! One of these indefatigable pedants even gets to be the book's hero.

Pedantry aside, The Da Vinci Code's jet-lag logic also raises some more serious questions. It is difficult--no, impossible--to look upon the novel's bucolic ending, as the latter-day spawn of Jesus and Mary Magdalene fade into a Scottish sunset, without noting, like the filthy anarcho-syndicalist peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that the world no longer stands in need of sacred kingship, male or female. "I am Arthur, your king," intones Graham Chapman's Arthur in that excellent film, to which the peasants cackle: "I thought we were an autonomous collective!" Long before the advent of the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, from which The Da Vinci Code draws a good deal of its lore about Mary Magdalene and the Children of Jesus, Monty Python had already connected the Holy Grail to a gaggle of beautiful, lascivious women, but with tongue planted firmly in cheek; and it is hard to read some passages of The Da Vinci Code without thinking of Michael Palin as Galahad stumbling into the seraglio as the ladies berate their queen: "Oh, naughty, naughty Zoot! Time for a spanking!"

As the Pythons recognized, it is one thing to postulate a sect of divine kings in a society that includes Crusades and Knights Templar among its features, but the bloom has long since left that medieval rose, and as the final sentence in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili observes, "a withered rose will never live again." The Da Vinci Code should be taken for what it is: modest balm for convalescents, insomniacs, and jet travelers. It is certainly not in any real way about the people, the places, or the ideas that it uses for its story--though if, like the now-defunct Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles called Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, it sparks interest in the realities of those excellent artists, it will have performed a mighty work.

The Rule of Four nurtures higher ambitions; unlike The Da Vinci Code, whose Harvard professor gives off only the sparest scent of the Charles River, the book is deeply rooted in another bastion of Western civilization, Princeton University, whose tortuous undergraduate rituals take on much greater reality than the putative secrets of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. In fact, the book is mostly about Princeton: about getting into your eating club, writing your senior thesis, hooking up with a partner, with an evanescent gust of Florence to shiver the clinging ivy. One wonders what would have happened if The Da Vinci Code or The Rule of Four had been set at, say, Michigan State or California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where human thought has been known to occur, and, some would assert, the institutions carry out a civilizing influence. Yet all too evidently, as these authors suggest, Western civilization, despite its name, stopped dead somewhere around Philadelphia. There is as much courtly bowing and scraping in The Rule of Four as there is in Rigoletto, without Verdi's thrilling outrage that grown men must look on in patient silence while spoiled young men disgrace themselves.

The Rule of Four is clearly a more learned thriller than The Da Vinci Code. It has real local detail and puzzles too intricate to solve mentally from an airplane seat. (Indeed, some of the puzzles cannot be solved at all, as they are fictitious.) For this intellectual complexity, The Rule of Four belongs to the same genre of action writing as Foucault's Pendulum, although Umberto Eco's novel is even more learned and much more clever, proving as it does that conspiracy theories eventually create their own reality, a theory that has since been proved prophetic by the new-forged "link" between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Foucault's Pendulum and The Rule of Four also share, unwittingly, a cultural arrogance that has always been the besetting flaw of most civilized traditions. After all, life and learning for most of human history have also happened outside Princeton, outside Florence, outside Umberto Eco's personal library, and without benefit of Y chromosomes--but you would never know it from this reading list.

Like Leonardo's Last Supper, The Rule of Four takes place over Easter, a season that began at the Passover seder. It is part of the essential conservatism of thrillers that both The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four still feel the need to dabble in religion without confronting it except as a murky paganism or a neatly symbolic way to mark time. (Foucault's Pendulum makes a similarly obligatory descent on one occasion into Brazilian Santería.) But religion will not be bought off so cheaply.

In August 1427, nearly seventy years before Girolamo Savonarola started spitting fire in Florence, a skinny, toothless Franciscan preacher named Bernardino da Siena delivered a sermon to a crowd packed into the Campo, Siena's gracefully sloping public square. A local weaver took down the sermon verbatim, as he had every day since Bernardino began preaching on August 15. "I have a relic today," the famous preacher announced. "It's not the arm of Saint Bartholomew, or the Virgin's sleeve; it's something much better. In fact, it comes straight from Jesus Christ Himself, and there's enough for every one of you." Even reading between the lines, you can feel the crowd's excitement at obtaining a piece of the Lord, and the way Bernardino stokes this excitement, drawing out the suspense to a pitch of high anxiety. When the tension seems unbearable, he finally cries out, "It's the Gospel!" And the crowd groans in disappointment. The weaver records their roar, and Bernardino's reply. "Oh, oh, oh, oh! O ye of little faith! You thought you would get an easy thing to carry around."

Bernardino knew how difficult the Gospels were to understand, and how difficult an enterprise it was to transform their teachings into a way of life. He spent his own life trying to make their meaning plainer to ordinary people like the burghers of Siena, in sermons that provide a fascinating mix of religious dedication, compassion, and bigotry, delivered with a homespun eloquence that drew from his refined literary education as well as his years on the road. Bernardino shows that it is the difficulty of the Gospels, not their simplicity, that made them so fascinating, and so compelling: the fact that only believers ever saw the resurrected Jesus, the impossibility of understanding how a human being could also be God, the way in which women had played an indispensable part in creating the story of Jesus and in spreading it.

The Gospels were as demanding in the fifteenth century as they had been in the first, with their threats to overturn society and to transform souls, and they remain the single most reliable key to Italian Renaissance art. They are the real Da Vinci Code, and at this hard, simple news the people will groan with the same disappointment as Bernardino's public all those centuries ago. (This is the point of the Protestant Darrel L. Bock's Breaking the Da Vinci Code, a book whose introduction is written by a Catholic.) Disappointment or no, the best guide to understanding Leonardo's Last Supper remains Bernardino's relic, for Leonardo surely began with the Gospel accounts of that portentous Passover meal in Roman-occupied Judaea when he formulated his composition, as did Andrea del Castagno before him and Caravaggio afterward. The secrets that this ancient story hides are the boundless promise and unfathomable frailties of human nature, the mixture of loyalty and treachery that we all share, the real mysteries that confront us.

These are the secrets that underpinned the apparent paganism of Botticelli's mythological allegories as well as his religious subjects (the Birth of Venus and the Primavera are also probably paintings about the Virgin Mary) and the friar's tale that is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Indeed, it was the very mixture of ancient fertility with Jewish mysticism and the Christian tale of resurrection that gave the Renaissance its beauty, and such civility as it mustered. Not necessarily stuff for an airplane journey or a convalescence, but nonetheless excellent sustenance for a sound mind and body.

The most compelling recent historical novel about religious strife in the Renaissance is a large novel called Q, written by a group of Italians who called themselves "Luther Blissett" for that occasion and are now known as "Wu Ming." (Like Monty Python's peasants, they actually are an autonomous collective.) If we really want to see what happens when religion drives believers to extremes, it is hard to do better than this vivid, terrifying portrait of a survivor of the Protestant Reformation, who travels through Europe watching societies, personalities, and every tie of civility breaking down as otherworldly certainties compel people to commit appalling acts in the here and now. The characters in Q bleed real blood, blood that was still soaking Europe in the trenches of World War I, and the firestorms of World War II.

Once again the tale revolves around a secret, but in Q it is a secret in the good old tradition of the Cold War novel: the secret of our own nature, at once so angelic and so diabolical, and so eternally out of control. Like The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four, Q has clearly been written in response to the tumults of our age, but it suggests, unlike those books, that there is no secret code to make everything right. Instead, like Bernardino's Gospel, the answers to our woes lie plain before us, accessible to all, as they have always been: the arts of coexistence, complicated, controversial, and requiring not a code-breaker's insight but a citizen's constant vigilance, laced with a Good Samaritan's instinctive compassion.

Ingrid D. Rowland is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the American Academy in Rome.

The NewRepublic Online

August 29, 2004
Death Takes a Holiday

ALTHOUGH I haven't yet made a trip abroad because of something I read in a detective story, I can't say I haven't been tempted. Mysteries set in faraway places make me want to toss some clothes in a bag and take off at dawn for:

. . . Cuba, Jose Latour's ''Havana World Series'' in hand, to imagine that wild time when American mobsters were fighting over control of the casinos and making bets on everything but a political coup.

. . . the sleepy back-country township in South Africa where Thobela Mpayipheli, a onetime government agent who has reinvented himself as a peaceable man, is reluctantly coaxed back into action in Deon Meyer's ''Heart of the Hunter.''

. . . the shady precincts of modern-day Shanghai patrolled by Chief Inspector Chen and fellow officers charged with investigating politically sensitive crimes in Qiu Xiaolong's ''When Red Is Black.''

. . . Brazil, clutching ''Southwesterly Wind,'' the latest mystery in a beguiling series by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, in the hope of catching Inspector Espinosa on one of his meditative walks through Rio.

. . . and, in a fanciful moment, time travel to the Australian city of Melbourne in the 1920's, the setting for Kerry Greenwood's ''Murder in Montparnasse'' and other whimsical mysteries in a series featuring a fashionable liberated woman, Phryne Fisher, as amateur sleuth.

But my first stop would have to be Italy, which teems with resident mystery writers. Although they view their respective regions from a morbid perspective, acute observers like Magdalen Nabb (in Florence), Donna Leon (in Venice), Andrea Camilleri (in Sicily) and Michael Dibdin (who won't stay put) are vivid chroniclers of the daily drama of life and death. And while their sleuths are no less familiar than Virgil with the infernal darkness of the national soul, they make more cheerful tour guides. Their Italian detectives are pensive souls who ponder cases over robust meals in noisy trattorias and refer to Cicero for insights into the human condition. Actually, Andrea Camilleri's cop, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, is more partial to Sicilian philosophers like Giovanni Gentile, and in ''The Terra-Cotta Dog'' he declares himself ''deeply moved'' by fried mullet, boiled squid and poached baby octopus. Michael Dibdin's urban investigator, Aurelio Zen, out of his element in the northern reaches of the Dolomites in ''Medusa,'' struggles to understand the archaic Ladino dialect and has even more trouble digesting the region's smoked meats and gamy stews.

Italian sleuths are also great walkers, invariably taking the most scenic route on their way to break the news to some poor old widow that her good-for-nothing son has been arrested for murder. Ardent admirers of all things beautiful, they will often stop to look at the frescoes in a church. In ''Uniform Justice,'' Donna Leon's sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti, even exchanges greetings with a mynah bird in a pet shop.

The point, of course, is that these fictional detectives and amateur sleuths are naturally inquisitive and supremely perceptive. They know their territory intimately and study it obsessively, alert to the slightest signs of change -- and danger. Kurt Wallander, the melancholy police inspector in Henning Mankell's Swedish procedurals, is an eloquent ruminator on the creeping evils of the postmodern era. ''What's happening to the world?'' he demands in ''Firewall'' when two teenage girls show no remorse after killing a taxi driver. Karin Fossum's ''Don't Look Back'' asks the same question in neighboring Norway when the murder of a well-liked girl awakens the residents of a picturesque village to a chilling fact: there are no more islands of tranquillity in a changing world. ''They hug their children close, and nothing feels safe anymore.''

Scandinavian cops may be the most morose of an angst-ridden breed, but they aren't alone. Fictional police officers throughout the world are shaking their heads over criminal behavior that would have been inconceivable to earlier generations. Investigating the murders of two illegal Albanian immigrants in Petros Markaris's ''Deadline in Athens,'' Inspector Costas Haritos visits the street where the couple lived and is stunned by their neighbors' blatant bigotry. ''Why all this fuss about two Albanians?'' demands the owner of a grocery store. ''After all, with two Albanians less and another one in prison, Greece is a better place.''

Don Lee is equally forthright about Japan's racist attitudes toward blacks and Koreans in ''Country of Origin,'' which also takes a gritty look at Tokyo's fabled sex-entertainment industry. Lee's underdog cop, Inspector Kenzo Ota, who is on the team investigating the disappearance of an American woman, is such a naive puppy that he doesn't realize his own landlady is a ''romance consultant'' in the flesh trade.

Pepe Carvalho, the world-weary private eye in ''The Buenos Aires Quintet'' and other books in a series by Manuel Vazquez Montalban, makes no apologies for his indifference to anything happening outside his native Barcelona. But when his uncle asks him to track down his wayward son in Buenos Aires, Carvalho is prepared to consider the possibility that ''a new Argentina has been born, a new breed of Argentines.'' His tolerance fails him, however, once he comes face to face with the legacy of violence passed down by a succession of ruthless military regimes.

This gritty genre realism is all very informative, you might say, but having traveled this far for a vacation, may I please have some restorative culture -- and perhaps some mindless fun? Leslie Forbes's ''Bombay Ice'' comes close to being mindless, with its overstuffed plot about rampant corruption, but this potboiler still qualifies as fun, with its gaudy picture of a Bollywood film factory whose production head is suspected of having murdered his wife. If modern India seems overwhelming, you'll find relief -- and pure entertainment -- in Barbara Cleverly's enchanting stories set in the declining years of the Raj. ''The Damascened Blade,'' the third in a richly atmospheric series, takes her Scotland Yard investigator, Joe Sandilands, to the lawless northwest frontier that India shares with its fierce neighbor, Afghanistan.

Amelia Peabody, the bossy archaeologist in Elizabeth Peters's romantic adventures set in Egypt at the turn of the last century, makes a perfect companion for a cruise up the Nile. After being hustled with your tour group through four temples and six tombs in one day, you can relax on deck and sink into ''Guardian of the Horizon,'' the latest adventure featuring an intrepid heroine who has been fighting grave robbers and fending off lusty sheiks for close to 30 years. Or you could choose to travel with Gareth Owen, the Mamur Zapt, or chief, of Cairo's secret police, in ''Death of an Effendi'' and other whodunits by Michael Pearce, set in the same colorful period. But Egypt hounds should also stock up on the gorgeously detailed dynastic mysteries of P. C. Doherty and Lynda S. Robinson.

Rereading ''Gorky Park'' is still the best way to get through a plane trip to Moscow. But once you arrive, the newly translated novels of Boris Akunin, which are set in czarist times and feature the escapades of a dashing diplomat-sleuth named Erast Fandorin, will introduce you to the unique Russian sense of humor. For all its elegant style, ''The Winter Queen'' is a madcap spoof of those absurdly romantic feats of heroism so dear to the Russian soul.

The reader who has been to London a million times and already knows to pick up the latest P. D. James or Peter Robinson can get a fresh slant on familiar territory with the historical mysteries of Leonard Tourney (16th century) and Bruce Alexander (18th century) -- or the incomparable Dr. Sam Johnson mysteries by Lillian De La Torre, if you can find these out-of-print classics -- as well as the better-known Victorian series by Anne Perry. But I must admit Paris is a blind spot with me, since I have yet to discover a more agreeable companion than Inspector Maigret.

As for culture, that's easy enough to find in genre novels, especially if you're headed for Spain, the setting and inspiration for Arturo Perez-Reverte's sophisticated literary thrillers. These intellectual puzzles, full of the most extravagant refinements, are the work of a mind enthralled by the aesthetic mysteries posed by old paintings (''The Flanders Panel''), rare manuscripts (''The Club Dumas''), arcane arts (''The Fencing Master'') and religious architecture (''The Seville Communion''). Finding himself in a cathedral square that ''had witnessed the bonfires of the Inquisition,'' the protagonist of ''The Club Dumas'' reflects that ''after all, this was Toledo. A crucible for underground cults, initiation rites, false converts.'' And suddenly you too are there.

In the end, though, what you most want to hear when you're on foreign soil are the voices of the people who live there. To my ear, the most insistent regional accents are heard in Scotland, in the brutal street talk of writers like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Denise Mina as well as in the more subtly sinister tones of Louise Welsh (who argues, in ''The Cutting Room,'' that Glasgow, for all its claims to toughness, is ''a peaceful wee haven'').

But if there's one person who can drown them out, it's the deceptively soft-spoken Precious Ramotswe, ''the only lady private detective in Botswana'' and the sensible heroine of a delightful series by Alexander McCall Smith that began with ''The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.'' Thinking about all the stories she has heard of her native land, Precious wonders, ''Who is there to write down the lives of ordinary people?'' -- and the answer is right there, in the lovely sound of her own sweet voice.

Marilyn Stasio writes the Crime column for the Book Review

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