Few relics associated with Jesus have inspired such curiosity as the Shroud of Turin, and certainly none has been subjected to as much scrutiny, speculation and scientific analysis. The shroud, purported to be the burial cloth of Jesus, bears the image of a man's face, but despite countless tests --- on the very rare occasions when scientists were allowed access to the highly venerated piece of linen --- modern science is at a loss to explain how the image was transferred to the cloth. And even many skeptics who have viewed the cloth in person, myself included, admit to feeling they have been in the presence of something holy and supernatural.
What better relic to write a novel about? Dan Brown focused on the Holy Grail, something no one today has actually seen unless you believe that the unknown descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene qualify. But hundreds of thousands of people have seen the shroud, and to build a mystery around efforts to destroy, steal or preserve it is genius. The premise is entirely plausible, and author Julia Navarro pulls off dual storylines with seeming ease: that of the legendary history of the shroud through the 14th century and a contemporary criminal investigation into a string of arsons and break-ins at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, where the shroud is permanently housed.
The book opens by setting up the backstory of how the shroud came to leave first-century Jerusalem and quickly shifts to the aftermath of the most recent fire at the cathedral. Marco Valoni, who heads up the Italian government's Art Crimes Department, is called in to investigate what turns out to be a web of intrigue involving a mysterious cabal of men whose tongues have been cut out --- voluntarily --- to keep them from disclosing their secrets, their plans and the nature of their mission: to steal the shroud that they believe is rightfully theirs.
Threatening to thwart their efforts are three factions: Valoni and his team of investigators, which includes Sofia Galloni, one of the country's top art history experts; Ana Jimenez, a journalist from Barcelona who begins to get a bit too close to the truth; and the modern-day version of the Knights Templar --- yes, the same Knights Templar who populate so much of contemporary fiction and nonfiction alike. The Knights Templar believe that they are called to be the sole guardians of the shroud, and they intend to protect it with their lives.
Navarro intersperses the storyline involving the current crime at the cathedral, and others dating back a hundred years, with the legendary story of how the shroud survived from the death of Jesus through to the 14th century --- which is when carbon-dating has indicated that the cloth was actually made. (As an aside, Navarro offers a fascinating explanation for how linen no older than the 1300s could bear the image of Christ.)
The modern-day story is fast-paced, with believable action and well-defined characters. The historical storyline, however, suffers a bit from the unavoidable --- an overabundance of characters, some imagined, some historical. Navarro had few options in that regard, but the sheer number of players does tend to slow down those chapters. Still, given the amount of territory she covers, the plot moves along quickly enough to sustain the reader's interest. In fact, it moves almost too quickly at the end; I found that I wanted another chapter or two of wrap-up, not so much because of any loose ends but more because it just felt so abrupt.
All in all, THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE HOLY SHROUD is an excellent effort on Navarro's part. Kudos also go to translator Andrew Hurley for his masterful job in rendering Navarro's Spanish-language text into idiom-rich English.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org) on December 23, 2010