The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley
Dismas, Swiss ex-mercenary turned monk turned connoisseur of holy items, is beholden to two patrons: Frederick the Wise of Saxony, protector of Martin Luther, whose collections of relics is rivaled only by the Vatican, and all around nice guy, and the Archbishop, Albrecht of Mainz, a corrupt and petty man who purchases all his positions and cares little for the authenticity of the relics Dismas brings him. As he attempts to retire from the “bone dealing” biz, only to find that the gold he invested has been embezzled, Dismas is goaded into selling the Archbishop a forged relic, that of Jesus’ burial shroud, created by his good friend, the greatest painter in Germany and all-around egomaniac, Albrecht Dürer.
What follows in The Relic Master is high adventure and all the thrill of a fantasy novel, without the dwarves, elves, magic or Big Evil. Christopher Buckley, with characteristic wit, keeps the pages turning with such buttery ease that the reader will not notice the hours slipping by. The Relic Master has it all. Action! Romance! History! Fart jokes! It is a triumph of effortless reading, brevity and literary fitness. The Relic Master does not, even for a moment, drag out or prolong any scene, and when we’re supposed to feel something, the build-up and execution feels genuine, eschewing contrivance or ham-fisted blows, successfully averting the Austenian melodrama that often burdens historical fiction.
Buckley takes an item of mystery and fictionalizes it with a story so full that it offers an account as credible as any, much like Alan Moore’s treatment of Jack the Ripper in From Hell. The fictionalization becomes more real than any academic account, the myth having greater pathos. Perhaps without ever having had an opinion before, the account of Dürer’s cunning forgery now emerges as the most convincing and plausible reason for the Shroud of Turin’s existence.
Also impressive is Buckley’s ability to make the Middle Ages so much fun. The dialogue and interaction is neither too modern, nor too archaic. Such a line is hard to walk, as we’ve seen in hokey, belly-up movies (which may hold kitsch value for some) like A Knight’s Tale. Nobility and papal status are easy targets for mockery, to be sure, and is a natural choice for Buckley who has professed that American politics, his usual target, has become sufficiently self-parodying. However, the Protestant Reformation seems like barren ground, comedically speaking. Nevertheless, it proves as fertile motivation for the actions of each character in the story and provides a tremendous backdrop in the Philip K. Dick vein, without being quite so obscure or elaborate. We are, at least in the West, rather familiar with what the Protestant Reformation entails. Buckley may also be drawing from the comedic lineage as propagated by Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
All in all, The Relic Master is an exquisite piece of escapism, a book you can recommend without worrying if anyone will “get it” or feel too daunted by its reputation or content. As easy as it is to read, there’s no doubt Buckley has gone to great lengths to pull the plow for us, and all we have to do is reap the riches, which is to say that it’s easy without being stupid. One walks away with an appreciation of the author, and an admiration of the guile of pre-Internet shysters, regardless of actual events.