This, Daniel Silva’s latest in his series featuring Israeli intelligence protagonist/hero/genius Gabriel Allon, is not at all like the others. Defending Israel from terrorists isn’t Silva’s focus in “The Order.”
Uncovering the origins of anti-Semitism in the Gospels at the dawn of Christianity is. This fact makes this latest Silva thriller stand out in a positive way for some readers, but not so for others. More on that later.
The plot is simple enough. The fictitious Pope Paul VII, nee Pietro Lucchesi, a friend of Allon, dies unexpectedly in his chambers in the Vatican. And one of his Swiss guards has disappeared. Then that guard is murdered by someone using a high-power rifle.
Allon, with his lovely, perfect wife, Chiara, and his two perfect children, is vacationing in Venice, Chiara’s home city. Naturally, though he is on vacation, Allon is pulled into this affair. He wants to find out why his close friend the pope has died.
Another close friend, Archbishop Luigi Donati, the pope’s key aide, alerts Allon to the death of the pope.
Much of the story unfolds as Allon and Donati try to unravel why the pope died. As some critics have noted, corrupt and murderous priests seem to be rampant in the Vatican. It’s a pit of intrigue, as the Vatican has been for centuries.
Was Paul VII, murdered? How? By members of the Vatican’s Roman Curia?
Silva’s use of detail in describing locations around Vatican City, Rome, Venice and other parts of Italy is sometimes dizzying, leaving this disoriented reader longing for more than a single map of Vatican City on the front flyleaf. How helpful that would be for readers who haven’t had the pleasure of driving through Rome and much of Italy.
Silva could not resist, apparently, making his tale timely by taking a swipe at the also fictitious Italian prime minister and, by bold implication, the real President Donald Trump. Allon is discussing existential threats to Israel with Gen. Cesare Ferrari, commander of the Division for Defense of Cultural Patrimony, commonly known as the Art Squad, who will play a key role in the dead pope’s elaborate funeral.
“Gabriel nodded slowly. ‘And how do you suppose an incompetent subliterate like [Prime Minister] Saviano will react under those circumstances? Will he listen to medical experts, or will he think he knows better? Will he tell his people the truth, or will he promise that a vaccine and lifesaving treatments are just around the corner?’
“ ‘He’ll blame the Chinese and the immigrants and emerge stronger than ever,’ Ferrari looked at Gabriel seriously. ‘Is there something you know that you’re not telling me?’
“ ‘Anyone with half a brain knows we’re long overdue for something on the scale of the Great Influenza of 1918. I’ve told my prime minister that of all the threats facing Israel, a pandemic is by far the worst.’ ”
Some readers – but not this one, for sure – take great offense at Silva’s quest this time to get to the bottom of anti-Semitism over the 2,000-year span of Christianity.
On a page of quotes before the novel begins, Silva cites Matthew 27: 24-25, which describes the trial of Jesus:
“When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to that yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood shall be on us and our children!’ ”
This reference to Matthew 27: 24-25 plays a key role in “The Order.” Bringing this pivotal bit of Christian scripture to the fore may be part of the reason some readers were offended.
Where Silva scores big, at least for this reader, is the 10 1/2-page author's note at the end of the book that explains the several fictitious incidents in the story and the people who make this mystery possible. Silva also takes on the conflicting accounts in the Christian Gospels of the trial and execution of Jesus. If nothing else, he questions the apparent root of Christian anti-Semitism.
But Silva has a greater purpose: He wants to settle, for the record, the origins in Christian beliefs of anti-Semitism, the root of centuries of pain and persecution of Jews, particularly in Catholic and Christian Europe.
So he posits that Pontius Pilate, Rome’s senior official at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, wrote his account of the trial and death of the young, troublesome Jewish leader.
In other words, Silva argues hypothetically, Pilate wrote one of the several apocryphal books that did not make it into Christianity’s core literature. This part of the mystery of Pope Paul VII’s death becomes a key point.
The real Pope Pius XII, who reigned during World War II, does not fare well, as many who have followed recent Vatican history know. Silva writes:
“Pius opposed the Nuremberg Trials [of senior Nazi leaders] after World War II, opposed the creation of a Jewish state, and opposed postwar attempts to reconcile Christianity with the faith from which it had sprung. He excommunicated every Communist on earth in 1949 but never took a similar step against members of the Nazi Party or the murderous SS. Nor did he ever explicitly express remorse over the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust.”
He also compares the accounts of the trial of Jesus in Mark and Matthew and concludes that the version in Matthew is “a literary fiction.”
And that’s the source of the collective blame of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, a belief that resonates today and underlies much anti-Semitism in the West.
These are grave charges. Little wonder some readers were deeply disturbed by them. However, Silva seems to be on solid ground with sources and scholars’ analyses of this seminal moment in Jewish-Christian relations.
Which is why this reader found this Daniel Silva mystery much more interesting than his previous ones.
They were entertaining.
“The Order,” on the other hand, is usefully informative and points to that reconciliation and understanding Pius XII did not seek but other, later pontiffs have, to one degree or another.