Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy and the Bible in U.S. Popular Culture

(2011) Luis Miguel Rocha, The Pope's Assassin (Putnam's)


Luís Miguel Rocha worked in London as a journalist in his 20s before returning to his native Portugal and becoming a best-selling author with his series of thrillers set in the secretive world of the Vatican. Rocha died at the young age of 39 in 2015, with the final book in his Vatican thriller series (A Filha do Papa, or "The Pope's Daughter," not yet translated into English) still in press.

Rocha is the only author I include in this study who did not write his books in English, but rather in Portuguese. Indeed, he is one of the few authors I've even found who wrote a Gospel Thriller not in English. While his novels have been popular in Portugal they have been explosively popular once published into English, perhaps ironically confirming the Anglophone appeal of the Gospel Thriller genre even when the novel was not originally composed in English.

Rocha burst onto the literary scene with his first Vatican thriller The Last Pope. (Rocha had written a novel the year before, entitled Um país encantado, about Portugal in the 1930s.) Claiming to have based his novels on actual documents given to him by secret sources, The Last Pope is about the death of John Paul I and an assassination plot involving the Vatican Bank and Propaganda Due (both of which appear in other Gospel Thrillers).

The main characters of The Last Pope reappear in the subsequent novels: The Holy Bullet (which continues the conspiracy surrounding the murder of John Paul I) and The Pope's Assassin. The final book, The Pope's Daughter, concerns a secret daughter of Pope Pius XII. Although all of the promotional copy for The Last Pope describes it as a "New York Times best seller," I have not yet found it on the Times best seller lists.

Sarah Monteiro, the intrepid journalist hero of the novels, seems to be a stand-in for Rocha: the same age, a Portuguese journalist who has lived in London, author by the time of The Pope's Assassin of two previous books revealing shocking Vatican secrets.

The Pope's Assassin, unlike the previous two novels in the series, does not actually deal with the assassination of Pope John Paul I; rather a mysterious behind-the-scenes fixer and source of information known only as "J.C.," is the titular assassin. An amoral force operating throughout the novels as a kind of deus ex machina, "J.C." enters in at crucial moments to reveal heretofore unknown secrets, recover objects thought long lost, and restore order in the chaos of Vatican politics.

The Pope's Assassin also bridges multiple sites of conspiratorial thinking associated with the Bible: the Vatican, whose secret libraries are often portrayed in Gospel Thrillers as hiding the truth; and the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose origins are here revealed to be entirely fabricated and whose most dangerous secrets are kept by an Israeli banker and his family. The state of Israel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Vatican (including the new pope, Benedict XVI), the Jesuits, and more are implicated in a 2000-year old chain of secrets in this novel.

Heroes: Fr. Rafael Santini, a Vatican-trained spy who is sidelined for much of this novel; Sarah Monteiro, British journalist and arm of J.C.; Ben Isaac, an Israeli banker in England and actual discoverer of Dead Sea Scrolls who protects the most dangerous scrolls in a pact with the Vatican
Villains: The entire body of Jesuits, masterminded by one Hans Schmidt, a semi-heretical German priest (with shades of Bultmann) and his mentally deranged henchman assassin
Gospel: Many secret gospels were discovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls, including a Gospel of Jesus revealing him alive and well in Rome in the 50s CE; there are also bones of Jesus supposedly guarded by the Jesuits, which turn out to be fakes; by the end of the novel it's not clear if any of the Dead Sea Scrolls—public, secret, Jewish, Jesus-related—are real or fakes

Reviews
Despite what seems to be major push by publishers (and claims that previous books were best sellers) The Pope's Assassin garnered little national press attention, apart from an Associated/Canadian Press review which called the novel appealing but also criticized its "cartoonish" characters and "silly" plot. Some regional reviewers were a bit kinder: the Lincoln (NE) Star Journal reviewer found the characters "intriguing"; the Providence Journal raves that "it's worth every genuflection and jeremiad."

Publisher's Weekly declared the novel "overlong, preachy third thriller" while Kirkus Reviews declared: "An uninspiring combination of complexity of plot and simplicity of character."

Gooreads and Amazon readers have left generally positive reviews.


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