Not sure how I ended up with this book, but it’s a detective story that takes the account of Jesus’ death sets it in modern time. Ben Bartholemew is a private eye from Jerusalem who must solve a mystery: the corpse of political agitator Jesus Davidson has disappeared following his execution by the occupying Romans. Rumors persist that Jesus came back to life.
The reason I’ve always remembered it is because it has ridiculous dialogue.
“This job is of the utmost urgency, but it must be handled with the greatest discretion.”
“Oh…sure. Sure. Discretion – that’s my middle name.”
“Your best brandy, and make it a double,” I said as I hoisted myself onto a bar stool.
“This is the real stuff,” said Nick. “Genuine Egyptian. And what’s wrong with you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s not a ghost I’ve seen, Nick, it’s a ghost I’m looking for.”
“Uh? That don’t make no sense.”
“This afternoon, Nick, ol’ buddy, nothing makes any sense.”
I hailed a passing cab and told him to take me to the Fish Gate.
“Hey, buddy,” said the cab driver, “you know why they call it the Fish Gate?”
“Because it stinks.”
“You just drive. I’ll make the jokes.”
Sometimes the author goes on a roll and gives us paragraphs like this:
I sat down. As I did so the man behind my desk flashed a badge at me. I recognised it at once: RIA-The Roman Intelligence Agency. There are some people who say the express “Roman Intelligence” is an oxymoron (look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls). On the other hand, you have to admit that the Romans are an inventive people. Just look at all the things they’ve invented: roads, Fiats, dry cleaning fluid. Mind you, the only reason they invented dry cleaning fluid was because they’d invented spaghetti first, and they had to get the Bolognese off their togas.
You might think this is some kind of crazy irreverent satire. But the book continually attempts scenes of pathos. It seems unsure of what tone to take.
J-dawg himself doesn’t appear in the book, but other Biblical figures do. In his quest to find the body of Jesus, Ben interviews Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Joseph of Arimathea, Marcus Longhinus (“Marcus” is a made-up name, but then, “Longhinus” probably is too…he doesn’t get a name at all in the Bible!) and numerous others. These scenes could have been fascinating. Instead, the author mostly fills them with stupid clowning around. Herod’s personal security detail is called the KBG (King’s Body Guard), with Herod himself being comically sexually ambiguous. Doubting Thomas appears here, with his personality so Flanderised that he just responds with “I doubt it” to everything anyone says, like a broken record.
I really liked how the author handled Barabbas, the thief who was freed instead of Jesus. He is presented as a troubled man who is beginning to realise who Jesus was, and that his rescue from death was the most rigged-scales bargain in history. Barabbas’s scenes are the only emotionally effective parts of the book, islands of pathos in an ocean of stupid jokes, Dick Tracy one-liners, and Biblical Who’s Who.
Nora Lofts’ How Far to Bethlehem is one of the best fiction books about Jesus that I’ve read. This is one of the worst. We all know how the Gospels end, we all know what Ben’s investigation will soon discover, it’s the most famous story in the world. All The Case of the Vanishing Corpse does is muddle around until it arrives at an inevitable conclusion.