Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

(2017) Linda Stasi, Book of Judas (Tor/Forge)

Linda Stasi is a New York-based newspaper columnist and occasional television host who, in 2013, turned to fiction writing with her first religious thriller, The Sixth Station (the name refers to the Stations of the Cross, the Veil of Veronica, and the possibility that Jesus has been cloned). Stasi has long been a fixture of New York media as a columnist at the New York Post and then the New York Daily News; when she married her current husband, power lawyer Sidney Davidoff in 2014, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio performed the ceremony. (According to a New York Daily News item, De Blasio also attended a launch party for Book of Judas at the Yale Club in New York City.)

The main character of The Sixth Station and Book of Judas is Alessandra Russo, a sort of stand-in for Stasi: an Italian-American hard-nosed journalist, an inveterate New Yorker, quick-witted and adventurous. In The Sixth Station Russo became entangled with the mysterious spy Yusef Pantera (a direct descendant of Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, apparently); in Book of Judas Pantera is (supposedly) dead and Russo is raising their infant love child (Pantera, or "Terry") together in her Manhattan apartment. She is also trying to maintain her journalistic bona fides in an era of high click rates and 24-hours internet news.

When the father of her best friend—Jewish, gay, ex-firefighter Roy Golden—dies suddenly and leaves him a mysterious tube with a secret gospel inside, she immediately publishes the news and ignites a race against time and shadowy enemies to save Roy's life and, it seems, that of her own child. Pantera, revealed to be alive, shows up to help ensure her safety and crack the secret of the gospel.

The gospel in question comprises missing pages from the Tchacos Codex, here supposedly stolen by Roy's father while he managed the bank at which the Codex was being stored in the 1980s. (The Codex really did spend time in a Long Island bank safe deposit box. In a Foreword, Stasi explains that this Citibank branch in Hicksville, Long Island, was actually her family's bank when she was growing up, one of a series of coincidences she says led her to write this novel.)

The adventure ranges from New York to Israel and back to New York, culminating in a showdown in the underground bowels of the perpetually unfinished Second Avenue subway line (a fun joke for Stasi's local readers).

The gospel itself remains largely unseen, and somehow mysteriously connected with another shadowy medieval relic: the Voynich Manuscript, a cryptic text so prone to outlandish theories about its "real" meaning that it has spawned a satiric Twitter bot. Together, these lost pages of the Gospel of Judas and the Voynich Manuscript allegedly supply the secret to resurrection—and perhaps global power—given by Jesus to Judas. Sealed for most of the novel in a tube requiring special keys, even the presence of the pages in Russo's apartment has strange effects on her baby, who begins walking and talking.

As these strange events make clear, the book takes a turn, like other Gospel Thrillers before it, toward the paranormal. Not only are we to imagine that the lost pages of the Gospel of Judas contain miraculous secrets, but together Russo and Pantera figure out that even the providential gaps in the published Gospel manuscript contain codes and clues (visible, we are led to believe, even in the English translation) pointing to alien origins for Jesus, his miraculous wisdom, and possibly all humankind. Since the lost pages of the Gospel of Judas are burned at the end of the novel by a suspicious Middle Eastern terrorist, all of this paranormal guessing remains speculative. Pantera disappears into his nebulous spy world, Russo (and her child) are safe, and Stasi is poised to continue her series of novels.

Heroes: Alessandra Russo, hard-hitting NYC investigative reporter just off maternity leave and Yusef Pantera, mysterious international spy and father of Russo's year-old baby
Villains: A vague coalition of religious extremists and fortune-hunters who want the secret of resurrection, especially Russo's Castevet-esque neighbors, the Judsons; a fake priest calling himself Arturo Elias; various other sundry associates
Gospel: Pages stolen from the Tchacos Gospel of Judas by a twisted banker in Long Island which we never see; instead secret truths are deduced from providential gaps in the translation of surviving Tchacos pages

Based on Goodreads and Amazon reviews, it's fair to say that readers who give themselves over to the conventions of the genre—which is to say, the majority of readers who would pick up a novel called Book of Judas—enjoy this novel while those who are looking for more finely tuned characters and plot find themselves disappointed.

Kirkus Reviews has praise for the novel as a whole, but expresses some reservations at the "conjectures of questionable validity" (presumably, the alien/panspermia stuff). Publishers Weekly's brief notice calls the novel "jaunty" but "predictable." 

Print reviewers have been very kind: the Providence Journal calls the novel "a finely tuned beautifully constructed thriller that would make Steve Berry and James Rollins proud." The New York Post (where Stasi used to be a columnist) included the book in its "REQUIRED READING" column. 

The public relations arm of Tor/Forge (an imprint of Macmillan) worked overtime to get Advanced Reader Copies into the hands of book review bloggers, resulting in a sea of online reviews, almost uniformly positive: "engrossing"; "riveting"; "disappointing"; "you got me!"; "would a make a great movie"; "extremely intense"; "action packed thriller with a relatable female lead." More than one praise the strong heroine at the heart of the novel, a clear aim of Stasi's (see this brief interview).

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