“The Inquisitor’s Key,” by Jefferson Bass

Reviewed by Carrol Wolverton

Juxtaposing stories from the 1300’s with the parallel story of a University of Tennessee anthropologist, Jefferson Bass’s The Inquisitor’s Key is exhilarating fiction. Jefferson Bass (a pseudonym for two men: Dr. Bill Bass and journalist Jon Jefferson) has no problem creating intrigue involving bad popes, crucified martyrs, and a slightly dense protagonist—the anthropologist—lured by a damsel in distress into investigating a mystery concerning the Shroud of Turin.

Not unlike the 14th century poet Petrarch, who fell famously in love with his Laura, this anthropologist adores a much younger woman. Also like Petrarch, he feels that his damsel is totally out of reach and off limits. He leaves a rotting body in the Body Farm under the university stadium to flit off to France and save his love.

Back in the 1300’s, a bad-boy pope finds himself face to face with the shroud image of a man he crucified, reacts dramatically, and dies three days later. This image, which is expertly preserved by an artist who happens to paint Petrarch’s Laura, is supposed to be that of Christ, but is actually that of Johannes Eckert, a Dominican order Templar.

It’s quickly apparent that there’s been some chicanery: the image, after all, is not of Jesus, and the figure is much too tall and its bones, well, not old enough. Our anthropologist is charged with determining the real age of the bones beneath the shroud. They go missing at the hands of another anthropologist who wants to sell them for millions.

Meanwhile, a modern day, end-time, radical preacher from Charlotte is trying to accelerate the second coming of Christ and wants the bones. He crucifies a bone seller in the name of Jesus. Real bone authenticity doesn’t seem to matter to anyone other than our man from Tennessee.

Is the story probable? No. Is it entertaining? Very.

Enchanting descriptions of the Gothic churches and residences built in the 14th century, and of the Palace of Popes in particular, leave one in hopes of a European vacation, albeit one that is free of the suspenseful events in this book. The question that this narrative provokes, ultimately, is this: How different are we today from our 14th century predecessors? Not very, according to Jefferson Bass.

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