Monday, February 15, 2010

But no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

There is a lot of striding in Phillip DePoy's The King James Conspiracy. A lot of striding-up stairs, down stairs, through hallways that are inevitably stone and freezing cold, into stables, and in the back rooms of inns. And a lot of wide-eyed exclamations, dramatic faints, and general clutching-of-robes.

Oh, and the main character, bad-ass Italian assassin "Brother Timon," is a nutmeg junkie.

For real. In between raiding the spice cabinet to feed his jones, Brother Timon zips around Cambridge trying to find a murderer who is offing the translators of King James' new Bible. Except, the translators all get whacked in the Cambridge main hall, and instead of moving to, say, a portable out by the swing set, they keep translating in the main hall, even though old guys keep getting knifed there in the middle of the night (which, I guess, could be a clever allegory about the sluggishness of academia, but it's not).

Brother Timon, super secret agent of His Holiness Pope Clement and possessor of a memory wheel that lets him memorize lots and lots of stuff (his character is based on Giordano Bruno, the inventory of the memory wheel, who was 1) burned 2) exploded and 3) nailed to death all simultaneously during the Inquisition. Apparently they had just run out of squishy pillows and comfy chairs.). Timon is dispatched to disrupt the translation of James' Bible while pretending to hunt for the killer with the help of Cambridge's Deacon Marbury, who conveniently has a daughter who is extraordinary smart, well-read, and a great cook. Fortunately, although DePoy employs a lot of cliches, he avoids having Timon and Anne get entangled, which is refreshing, although Anne's character is a little too sexy-librarian (in a totally post-Elizabethan way) to be believable.

Translators are stabbed, the King's English is mangled, revelations about the Bible's translation errors and the Apocrypha are had ("This changes everything!" "This changes nothing!!"), crazy King James dispatches foppish emissaries, Anne and Timon spend a lot of time thundering up and down the hallways, Timon gets into wicked knife fights despite being over 50, which in Jacobean years means you're actually dead, and lots of dramatic speeches about the sacred texts that keep turning up are delivered.

DePoy's constant attempts to ratchet up the tension are tiring, and some of the dialogue is unintentionally hilarious (as is the aforementioned nutmeg pipe, which has me looking at my spice rack with renewed interest). Even the plot twist isn't especially twisty, and the random involvement of a pagan with a grudge may have been interesting if it hadn't been squeezed in so improbably.

The notes on historical sources and texts in the back of the book are interesting, and if you're into 1) spice addicted monks, 2) the Jacobean era or 3) Biblical translation conspiracies, you could probably do worse than pick up the novel, but the fascinating aspects of the Apocrypha and debate over the veracity of the Jamesian translation are unfortunately glossed over-the Bible seems like a footnote to the plot, and none of the characters are that compelling. Even Timon/Giordano, who goes through all the tortured-soul standard experiences (flashbacks of torture, losing and then regaining his faith, having epiphanies at really inconvenient times, and being way better at combat than he should be) is sort of two-dimensional, and it's hard to ignore how ridiculous the murders are. After the third body turns up in the same damn room, you'd think the translators would either relocate or get some guards. Or at least use the buddy system.

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