Barry Libin’s second novel, “The Vatican’s Vault,” would surely get a prize, were there one, for Novel with a Lot of History Embedded into the Narrative — documented and apocryphal. Along with action set in Italy, Israel, and midtown Manhattan, the Westhampton Beach-based author even manages a scene in Westhampton Beach. And maybe Libin should also get a prize also for Neat Referencing of Former Work, because several times he slips in mention of his previous novel, “The Mystery of the Milton Manuscript,” where protagonist Dr. Jeffrey Moss, a cardiac surgeon now assistant to the Medical Examiner of New York and a NYC detective, first cut his chops. And maybe still another prize: Most Adept at Channeling “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Da Vinci Code” together. Impressive, though a bit much.
Libin’s former careers as a dentist and a pharmaceutical researcher have served him well in his continuing passion to read about history and science. Eager to acknowledge his sources, an author’s note references some of the works that prompted his take on the quest for treasures of the Lost Temple of Jerusalem. These include “The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini,” an arcane Renaissance “conspiracy” manuscript for the reform of the Catholic church called “The Permanent Instruction of The Alta Vendita,” various Hebraic and Judaic commentaries, papal pronouncements, and texts on the secret brotherhood of Freemasons. Not to mention numerous accounts about ancient sites and secret Vatican chambers.
The story’s hardly all talk, however, as Jeff and his new lady friend, Daniella, an archeological scholar, try to track down the provenance of icons said to be from the Lost Ark in an attempt to solve the brutal murder that opens the narrative. Dateline: 10:30 PM. Place: 453 Madison Avenue — St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Occurrence: A young priest, recently arrived from Rome, tortured, inquisition-style, impaled with a wooden stake through his heart, and left hanging “as lifeless as Christ on his cross,” while attempts were made to torch the premises. The words Soli Dei Gloria (glory to God alone) were inscribed in blood and hung around the victim’s neck.
On examination, it’s revealed that the priest had hidden two ancient medals, carved by Benvenuto Cellini in 1534 for Pope Clement VII, and a gold band, in a hollowed-out part of his shoe, and that before arriving in New York, he had made a mysterious stop in Jerusalem. Questions about the murder soon turn to a schism in the church — forces for inclusion, modernity and change, the apparent direction the new pope wants to go, arrayed against those who identify as conservative reactionaries, none more vocal and devious than scheming Cardinal Ludvik Jarogniew.
But as one of the book’s secondary characters muses, “Hasn’t it always been that the race for riches and power often leads to the worst in man?” The killings mount: Two witnesses to the murder are soon found dead, inquisition-style again, and it’s apparent that some high-powered politicos with dubious connections to the church hierarchy may be hampering the investigation.
The Catholic Church is in crisis, as the new pope at an upcoming synod of bishops is determined to introduce doctrines to address “democratization” and “equality.” Cardinal Jarogniew, however, will stop at nothing to prevent this liberal tilting, twisting a mid-19th Century subversive plan for reforming the church to his own advantage. At the center of everything is a search for the First Temple Treasure, missing for 2000 years, the contents of which, it’s been said, might give the possessor extraordinary control over the world. “Power is more valuable than gold.”
Various conjectures are played out in the novel as to what happened to Solomon’s treasure. Libin has done a lot of research, and those who know about the Ark only by way of Indiana Jones are in for an entertaining ride; a ride, alas, that takes too many incidental detours. It’s good to learn that as he was composing “Tosca,” Puccini came to Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo to “determine the pitch and pattern” of the bells that ring in the final scene, but is it necessary to have this information followed by tour-guide history about the Castel?
Or this? “[Jeff] tightened his grip on his briefcase and walked down Park Row, past City Hall, until he reached One Police Plaza, the 13-story inverted pyramid-shaped building familiarly called One PP that headquarters the New York City Police Department.”
Still, Libin has a compelling story, one that reads quickly and for sure, resonates for our time.