Not being an aficionado of mystery genre I nearly passed on this European best seller and its investment of nearly 500 pages. But it contained two of my enduring, if amateur, passions—archaeology and religion. I am a sucker for ancient crypts, sacred grottoes and sanctum sanctorums. Get me near a catacomb and I’ll dive into the musty recesses and loculi like a prairie dog at a convention of hawks.
There is enough violence in religion not to require a lot of extra mayhem, but a story centered on monasticism, with its monotonous Lauds, Matins, Vespers, Compline offices, can do with a little bloodletting to spice things up—think The Name of the Rose. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite “digs” is a place in Rome near the Foro Romano that is called The Mammartino. It is actually the earliest known prison in the city, and all that is left of it is a cell in which, legend has it, St. Peter was kept while awaiting his inverted crucifixion on the Vatican hill. Inside its low vaulted ceiling is a small altar with an inverted cross on it. The grimy cell also has a sewer cover that leads into the Cloaca Maxima. Reputedly, captured enemies like the Gaul, Vercingetorix, and Jugurtha, the Numidian king, were dispatched and dumped in the sewer. I can’t resist places like the Church of the Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the precinct of he Oracle at Delphi, he cemetery of Capuchins in Rome or the Catacombs at Denfert-Rouchereau in Paris.
Mont St. Michel, the splendid Benedictine Monastery just off the coast of France almost due west of Paris makes for a good setting for an archeological/murder mystery. Ancient, isolated by tides, buffeted by chilly winds, and murmuring with the incantations of centuries of dead monks who live lives that are almost a complete waste of time (my prejudice; they did copy some manuscripts rather nicely before xerography) while waiting for heavenly eternity. Monasticism was a loony bin of self-incarceration that magnified superstition, delusion, insanity and buggery by its compression and isolation.
The story’s protagonist is French archeologist, Johanna, who is having an affair with a married official of antiquities, but has had recurrent and scary dreams of a headless monk since she was a young girl on Mont St. Michel. Much of the story alternates between the present-day and events in the mount in the 11th Century when the Benedictines occupied the abbey and there remained some pagan Celt remnants on the mainland. The storey centers on restorations that were being directed by an architect monk named Roman. The work involves changes to an old chapel called Notre Dame sous-Terre, which we later learn sits above an even older pagan sanctuary. There is a lot about the architecture of the mount, probably more than necessary and difficult, without any schematics, to appreciate in what amounts to a multi-level structure built in different styles and periods.
Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, Johanna is carrying one affair, has a narratively- superfluous trip to Italy with a girlfriend and is obsessed with finding out about the headless monk that haunts her. We learn that Roman is that monk and he was beheaded by a Benedictine competitor, Almodius, for the affections of Moira, a beautiful Celt girl who healed wounds he received when he was attacked by a brigand. Moira and Roman fall into a non-carnal love. He tries to convert her, but Almodius has her tried as a devil worshipper and she is subjected to a series of trial-tortures worthy of Dick Cheney, and she dies. Not long after he beheads Roman and throws his head into the pagan chapel, leaving him decapitated and roaming between heaven and earth and unable to be re-united with his Moira in Paradise.
I won’t go further with plot except to say that there are secret burials, several more murders, another affair for Johanna, a manuscript discovered at the abbey at Cluny, written by Roman. If the writing were not so good, you might suspect the hand of Dan Brown in all of this. The mystery does pull you along, but forces some slogging through material and scenes that are tedious. We are regularly reminded that the answers to Johanna’s haunting are subterranean. There is a recurrent Latin promise of the Angel Michael that she “must dig in the earth to reach heaven.”
Like most mysteries the denoument is a deconstruction. But for this reader it takes place far to frantically and with too much reliance upon characters being used to explain the plot they are participating in. The conclusion is a little bit too much Laura Croft, intellectual tomb raider.
The Angel’s Promise is, not in the same league as The Name of the Rose, perhaps because it has appeared in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, which, in some ways it seems to try to emulate with a labyrinth of plot that ties up breathlessly and neatly in the forty pages. All mysteries are solved for the reader. But it also fails for lapsing into an almost schmaltzy melodrama. Separated and unconsummated love across the ages between a monk and a beautiful Celtic healer-priestess (he literally loses his head over her) borrows too much from Heloise and Abelard. Lenoir is a religion scholar and Cabesos is a writer in case one gets to suspecting there might be some parallels “off stage.”
Crypts within crypts, within crypts, contain secrets wrapped in Latin phrased ambiguities. Present-day murders replay those of the Middle Ages, and every sign signifies. Perhaps to this reader’s disappointment (blame my non-theism) the narrative would have been more interesting had it been about belief and rather less that of belief. There was plenty of murder in the Middle Ages, and in and between religious communities, but, while some of it was over matters of faith, most of it was over very earthly stuff, like power, money, and sex, the same stuff that explains most of human mayhem these days. Religion, as in the cases of Jonestown and Waco, is its demented justification.
The reality of religion is not he existence of God, which cannot be proven or known, but the persistence of belief in a God. The Angel’s Promise has a wing in each side of this distinction.
©2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.27.2009)