Friday, August 22, 2014

Yesterday and Tomorrow?

Dr. Mallard on NCIS can determine just about anything about a deceased person based on the condition of the body when it's found. Although his abilities are probably exaggerated, forensic pathologists really can gain a lot of information by examining the internal organs of someone who has passed away. That science began in the late 1700s, and Tessa Harris tells the story of Thomas Silkstone, a young Philadelphian who travels to London during colonial days to study with London's top surgeons and "anatomists."

Thomas has been asked to examine the corpse of Sir Edward Crick, whose death gave the impression of having been brought about by poison. He is happy teaching students at the college where he also studies under Dr. Carruthers and does not really wish to enmesh himself in the affairs of Sir Edward, his sister Lady Lydia Farrell and her husband Michael. But Lady Lydia is beautiful, and the death presents a mystery indeed. Thomas agrees, but he finds that those who would rather keep Sir Edward's manner of passing a secret will take steps to be sure it remains so -- even if that means removing a certain colonial-born anatomist.

Harris has much of the Georgian-era mores and cultural features down very well, although she doesn't go so far down that path as to make the characters too remote and unrelatable. She seems to have done her research about the era and about its level of medical knowledge, although a couple of dyspeptic Amazon reviews claim otherwise. Thomas is the best-drawn character, as many of the other leads simply exist to react to him and give him someone to whom he may react. The mystery offers a couple of appropriately plausible red herrings before coming to a not entirely-unexpected conclusion, although it puts one twist or two more than necessary in the road on the way there. The Silkstone books have a promising beginning as a period mystery series that we can hope Harris maintains.
One of the weaknesses of what's called "end times fiction" in religious publishing circles is how to include enough esoteric details the pre-, post- or a-millennial audience wants to see about the interpretations of Biblical prophecy without drowning the story in so much of that kind of minutiae that a general audience will check out rather than wade through it.

Another is that it's often very poorly written. Former political consultant Joel C. Rosenberg's The Last Jihad series largely overcomes the first problem and makes a decent enough stab at the second to rank it well above the industry standard "Left Behind" series. The Copper Scroll is the fourth book of the series, so this note may spoil some of the earlier books if you decide to read them.

Former presidential advisor Jon Bennett and Erin McCoy, his aide and also a CIA officer, have been able to marry each other without an international crisis wrecking the day. Their honeymoon, on the other hand...

The Bennetts find themselves caught in a murderous web of intrigue surrounding the words of the "Copper Scroll," found in the Qumran caves in the late 1940s along with the other Dead Sea Scrolls. An Israeli archaeologist believes he has keys to deciphering the scrolls mysterious directions to immense hidden treasure. Government leaders in Israel and the United States are interested, and the remaining leadership of areas devastated by a space-borne firestorm in the previous book are looking at the treasure for the resources it could give them in their recovery. Who will learn the Copper Scroll's secrets first, and what will the consequences be?

Rosenberg does a much better job than "Left Behind" authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins at creating a real world out of which his eschatological plotline may develop. He keeps the supernatural elements at a minimum and his research is put together better (his description of the Copper Scroll is pretty much accurate, for example). His action scenes are more realistic and have more punch. The characters are still pretty stock and cookie-cutter, but if The Copper Scroll hadn't been published by the religious-book outfit Tyndale House, there's no reason it couldn't sit on an airport bookstand alongside any dozen secularly-published thrillers. Maybe Rosenberg's apocalyptic worldview is off-target and maybe it isn't, but it's certainly no sillier than any idea Dan Brown has ever inflicted on paper and it's a better read anyway.

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