Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

(1976) Robert Ludlum, The Gemini Contenders (Doubleday)

By the time Robert Ludlum wrote The Gemini Contenders, the middle-aged, former theatrical producer was the author of five novels and a bestselling success. Ludlum's combination of readability and facility with plot has led some to dub him the inventor of the "airport novel": the fast, engaging read that is neither too taxing nor too simplistic. 

Ludlum's most famous works, due in part to their cinematic adaptation, are probably the Bourne novels. Gemini Contenders shares with these books, and most of Ludlum's oeuvre, a focus on global conspiracy and the quest of one man to uncover the truth—usually with mixed or no success. Like most of Ludlum's novels, Gemini Contenders debuted on the New York Times best-seller list and remains among the dozens of Ludlum novels in print. 

As a multigenerational story, Gemini Contenders allows Ludlum to draw on the paradigmatic U.S. enemy, the Nazis. (Two earlier Ludlum novels were set during World War II and engaged the Nazis directly, as well.) Unlike most Gospel Thrillers, the title does not relate at all to the secret gospel that drives much of the plot (and which spends most of the novel hidden in a secret "vault"). Rather, the "gemini contenders" are the twin sons whose rivalry animates the second half of the novel. Ludlum's layering of personal struggle within global conflict captures perfectly the psychodynamics of conspiratorial thrillers.

Heroes: In part 1, the hero is Victor Fontine (né Vittorio Fontini-Christi, a much more suggestive surname), an Italian multimillionaire whose father agreed to hide "the vault" somewhere on their property, and who flees Fascist Italy during World War Two and becomes an Allied spy; in part 2, set in the present day, Victor's do-gooder attorney son, Adrian, whom Victor charges to find the secret vault
Villains: In part 1, Nazis (including double agents); throughout, extremist Catholics; extremist U.S. military officers (including Adrian's twin brother, Andrew Fontine); and the mysterious "Order of Xenope," a group of monks who put the vault into hiding to protect its secret
Gospel: probably authentic (there is some question at the end) confession of Peter testifying that Jesus did not die on the cross (another was substituted for him), but committed suicide three days after the crucifixion; it was hidden long ago, with other ancient documents, by the Xenope monks

Reviews: Like many of Ludlum's books, Gemini Contenders was favorably reviewed at the time for its taut plotting and engaging conspiracies; see the reviews from the New York Times and San Francisco Examiner below. As Goodreads and Amazon reviews suggest, it remains popular, although perhaps lesser known, among Ludlum's fan base.

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