Hazel McHaffie

Jesus Christ

Messiah

Last week I shared stories about the life of an exceptional real-life forensic pathologist, Dr Richard Shepherd. When I worked at Edinburgh University I was familiar with the sight and sound of another such hugely experienced pathologist: Professor Anthony Busittil. So when I found a psychological thriller where he was mentioned in the acknowledgements, my antennae quivered excitedly. And yep, the book looked intriguing enough to buy.
Blurb: A clever serial killer at loose in London’s steamy streets, leaving no clues behind except his trademark – silver spoons in their mouths instead of tongues.
Claim: ‘Guaranteed to haunt your dreams‘. Oh yeah?
Title: Messiah.

You’d certainly need a dependable expert to guide you through the minefields of this particular tale! I can just imagine the phonecalls …
What would happen if you drove a nail through a human hand and let it take the weight of the body?
How would you go about skinning a human body?
What would the blood splatter look like if you cut out a person’s tongue while he was still alive?
What’s also fascinating to me is that Professor Andreas Lubezski, the Home Office Pathologist in the story, shares a number of similar characteristics with Prof Busittil! An accolade or mini-thanks in itself.

So, what of the book then? Well, it was the debut novel for Boris Starling back in 1999, and I’ve subsequently discovered it was dramatised for the BBC with no less than four televised sequels! Who knew?! It completely passed me by. But I guess that ongoing interest gives some indication of its fascination and pull. And indeed, the original book is a fiendishly clever novel, hooking the reader in from the very first sentence, managing to maintain the suspense through eleven gory murders, two wrongful arrests, and even twisting the knife at the very end.

If you’re like me, and haven’t seen or read it before, then
BEWARE: WHAT FOLLOWS INCLUDES SOME SPOILERS

In a nutshell, a killer is stalking the streets of London, slaughtering men to a pattern. Not a shred of incriminating evidence is left behind, just corpses, clothed only in their underpants, with their tongues expertly cut out and solid silver spoons left in their mouths. So from the outset the police know this monster is acutely forensically aware, and he has an agenda, a message. Pitting his wits against this merciless maniac is Detective Superintendent Redfern Metcalfe, a skilled investigator, famed for his ability to get inside the minds of deranged killers. Alongside him, three handpicked colleagues, later reduced to just two. But Red himself has a tortured past. He has hidden an act that could have him imprisoned if it ever came out, and his only brother is serving a life sentence for murder. Baggage enough, you’d think.

Initially Red is at a complete loss. There are no mutual friends, no mutual interests, no apparent pre-death links at all between the victims. So who is ‘Silver Tongue’? Gradually, as the macabre body count rises, the team pieces together a profile. The killer is a religious zealot, basing his murders on biblical accounts of the life and death of Jesus Christ, each victim, each manner of death, carefully selected and executed to reflect features relating to each of the apostles, each killing occurring on a specific date.

May 1st. Philip is a caterer. He’s been hanged.
May 1st. James is a bishop. He’s been beaten to death.
July 25th. James is an army officer. He’s been decapitated.
August 24th. Bart(holomew) is a leather worker. He’s been skinned alive.
September 21st. Matthew is a tax inspector. He’s been hacked to death.
October 28th. Jude is a worker with the Samaritan. He’s been clubbed to death.
October 28th. Simon is a member of parliament. He’s found sawn in half.
November 30th. Andrew is a young fish man from Billingsgate market. He’s been crucified on a Scottish Saltire.
December 27th. John was an author and journalist. He died two years before but his embalmed body has been removed from a mausoleum and draped out in the open in Highgate cemetery.
June 29th. Peter is a locksmith. He’d been crucified upside down.
December 21st. Thomas is an architect. He’s been killed by a lance and his right hand severed.

Can you see any patterns?

Well, by the time of the eleventh murder Red has unravelled the secrets of this demonic mind. What’s more, he knows he himself is next. His fear is unlike anything else he has ever experienced; he is up against an assailant who hasn’t made a single mistake in executing this whole series of murders, even when the police knew the date he would next strike, the name of the expected victim, and the likely weapon of destruction. Will Red manage to outwit this monster? Will they capture him alive? It’s mesmerising reading. I must be hardened after all this immersion in psychological thrillers because it hasn’t affected my sleep, but it has given me a sense of awe, in that the real human mind can conceive such a plot and capture it so mind-blowingly well. Hats off to Boris Starling … and Anthony Bussitil!

PS. I’ve since watched the dramatisations and, guess what? the book is way way better!

 

 

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Absolute Proof

It was an article in the daily newspaper that first alerted me to the publication of this unusual book:  Absolute Proof by internationally bestselling crime writer, Peter James. It’s noteworthy that, back in 1989, James was not the success he is today, neither had he shown any great interest in religion, when, out of the blue, he received a phone call from an elderly gentleman claiming to have been given irrefutable evidence of God’s existence, and saying that Peter James was the man to help him get it taken seriously. That call was the start of a 29 year exploration into exactly what the consequences of such proof might be. It fed into James’ personal obsession with why we’re here, what happens after death, what is good/evil, and his innate passion for the subject drove him to pursue the idea. The end result is a 560 page novel which challenges and informs, troubles and intrigues, in equal measure. And I was delighted to receive a hot-off-the-press hardback copy from DJ as an unexpected gift!

Theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, who died in 1274, said that ‘To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible,’ and I suspect the beliefs and opinions of each reader will influence how they approach and interpret this tale, but knowing its origins does give it some added mystery and appeal. And the author himself declares that writing the book left him believing in an ‘informed intelligent design’ of some kind.

So, to the story-line. Ross Hunter is no stranger to weird or terrifying experiences. He’s an investigative journalist who likes to push his own limits, dig deep in the murk. But even he is taken aback when Dr Harry Cook – former RAF officer and retired professor of history of art – contacts him, saying he’s recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence. He’s been advised that Ross is the man to get it taken seriously. Ringing bells so far?

Intrigued, Ross meets the man. Dr Cook seems utterly and touchingly sincere; he really believes that together they can save the world. What’s more he brings with him three persuasive inducements: a written text from God, running to 1,247 pages; messages from Nicky, Ross’ dead twin brother, that not another living soul could possibly know; and three compass coordinates. These coordinates are the locations for three lost religious treasures: the Holy Grail; the DNA of the Lord Jesus Christ; and something related to the Second Coming … So far, so Dan Brown, huh? But religious advisors tell Ross that it would take more than three compass coordinates to prove God exists. What would it take? A miracle which defies the laws of physics, beyond human replication, seen by all the world. Furthermore the advice comes with a dire warning: anyone finding such proof would be in grave danger of being assassinated so high are the stakes for both religious and political leaders.

Naturally enough, given that this is a Peter James’ creation, there are several unscrupulous groups of people who will stop at nothing to get their hands on these invaluable objects. And also as you’d expect, all the ingredients of a crime thriller are there …
– a vast cast of characters – aesthetes and penitents, ruthless businessmen and serious scientists, atheists and devout believers
– complicated backstories which gradually unravel
– dark secrets, disturbances or psychological damage in the past histories
– a secret people will kill for
– mortal danger, chases, threats, murders
– all the unprovability of faith and religion pitted against science and medicine, economics and mathematics
– a smattering of drug dealing, sexual depravity, extortion, blackmail, addiction, greed.

The long list of acknowledgements pays tribute to the thoroughness of almost three decades of research, and the detailed insights into the Bible as well as scientific thought and understanding are indeed impressive. And yet, James leaves room for something in between – ?coincidences – ? ‘God’s calling cards‘ as Einstein put it. And when you’re hunting down the Son of God, anticipating his impact on the world today, that seems entirely feasible and appropriate!

The caller who planted the seeds of an idea in Peter James’ mind back in the 1980s said that God was very concerned about the state of the world, and mankind needed to have its faith in him reaffirmed. Plenty of people today would agree. Whether this book would contribute to that high aim is more debatable.

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