Penance through Thievery

The Relic Master: A Novel, by Christopher Buckley, (Simon & Schuster), 400 pages, release date 8 December, 2015

Christopher Buckley’s The Relic Master is one of those novels that sneaks up on you. It’s interesting enough at the beginning, but not more than that. However, by time you’re well into the book you’ll find it has become compelling reading.

Set in 1517, The Relic Master follows the increasingly complicated life of Dismas, who makes his living selling more-or-less genuine relics—at any rate, his relics are a lot closer to genuine than those offered by many other dealers. This is the era of Luther’s criticism of the Catholic Church, particularly the ways it works as a fund-raising mechanism: selling indulgences and making powerful church men rich. Dismas’s two biggest clients are rivals: Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and the almost-Cardinal of Mainz, Albrecht. Frederick and Albrecht are in a competition of sorts to see who can amass the largest and most remarkable collection of relics. Frederick is Dismas’s uncle and generally receives the best of Dismas’s relics, while Albrecht is willing to use extortion to demand that Dismas present him with bigger and bigger prizes.

In an attempt to make a little extra money, Dismas and his friend Dürer (yes, that Dürer) cook up a plot to forge the shroud of Christ and to sell it to Albrecht. The forgery is uncovered and Albrecht demands that Dismas and Dürer go on pilgrimage as penance—specifically, a pilgrimage to steal another supposed shroud of Christ owned by another nobleman.

The pilgrimage becomes more and more difficult, requiring that Dismas and Dürer come up with increasingly convoluted means of continuing their mission. Their journey becomes as sort of medieval Marx Brothers movie with false identities, changing loyalties, and much hysteria.

Part of what makes this novel effective is that Buckley balances the absurdities with the characters’ genuine reflections on the true meaning of the sacred. The reader can laugh,  but also has opportunities to turn over more serious questions. In other words, this isn’t just a novel for readers of historical fiction, but also for doubters of every stripe.

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