Richard Beard Invents a New Genre: Call it “Gospel Noir”

Dru Marland / Courtesy Melville House Books

The writer debuts a new kind of fiction with his latest novel, The Apostle Killer, now available in the U.S.

Depending on whom you talk to, there is one case in the history of the world’s biggest mysteries that has never been closed: the whereabouts of Jesus Christ’s body. Richard Beard’s new novel The Apostle Killer reimagines the Resurrection event, placing it in modern times and in the format of a crime thriller, what Beard calls “gospel noir.”

First published in the U.K. in March of last year (under the title Acts of the Assassins) The Apostle Killer quickly became both a Guardian and Observer “Best Book of the Year,” and was short-listed for The Goldsmiths Prize, which is awarded to fiction that opens up new possibilities for the novel. What is most experimental about Beard’s sixth novel is the time-compression factor: It is both modern and ancient, familiar and completely new. Set in an imaginary modern-day Roman Empire, hardboiled investigator Cassius Gallio’s career is facing a sunset. Pontius Pilate gives him one last chance to save his name: find Christ’s missing body. The apostles are of course Gallio’s best bet for uncovering the mystery, but they are being murdered one by one.

This month, Melville House publishes the U.S. version, and we’re pleased to present a selection from it: the first nine pages. For the rest, we suggest you run to the bookstore.  

***

Judas

“BURST ASUNDER”

First, find the body.

            Male, early thirties, bearded. Distinguishing features: extensive trauma injury, severe to hands and feet. Decomposition consistent with springtime conditions in an arid territory. So follow the smell of a four-day-old death, the black fruit stench of human decay. The corpse is out there somewhere.

            Find it. Then the occupying army, representing human progress, will investigate. These people have forensics, a rational system of criminal justice, and will ensure that those guilty of stealing a body from a burial site are tried and punished. Whoever they may be.

            Cassius Marcellus Gallio, counterinsurgency, switches on the recording equipment and speaks out loud the precise date, the exact time, the full names of those present. This is how it usually begins. Then he switches the machine off, watches the green recording light fade and die. In this city he has the title of Speculator. He expects to get results.

            ‘What I’m wondering, what I really want you to tell me, off the book, if you can, is how much you knew in advance.’ Cassius Gallio will be polite for as long as possible. The interview room often does the rest—a single metal table and a folding metal chair. No one wants to wind up in the fortress, in the Antonia. Outside, down in the streets, a turncoat can convince himself that his loyalties are divided. In the Antonia they are not. Inside the fortress the time has passed for ‘and,’ for ‘both.’ The choice now is either/or, the occupiers or the occupied, reason or superstition.

            ‘If you can remember, if the information is alive in your brain, and not too much trouble to share.’

            Despite the hard chair and the bare room, the Judas is not in a talkative mood. Cassius Gallio flips open his notebook and draws a circle. An imperfect circle, so he has another go. Same intended shape, different imperfections. Nothing is going right for him today.

            ‘I’m withholding half your fee.’

            ‘I did what we agreed.’

            Valeria, Gallio’s colleague, sits on the front edge of the table with one foot on the floor. She picks her fingernails with the corner of a laminated guide explaining emergency procedures in the event of fire. Her nails are clean. She taps the stiff edge of the card on her knee. Tap tap. On her knee, the back of which would fit perfectly the inside of Cassius Gallio’s elbow.

            Gallio concentrates. Not today, he thinks, of all days. He doesn’t have time for the inconvenience of Valeria’s knee.

            ‘Judas?’

            The man flinches at the sound of his name. He gnaws at the inside of his cheek, bites at the skin of his fingertips. Let him, let the traitor eat away at himself. At the barred window Gallio looks down on the early Jerusalem streets: a normal Monday morning, visibly untouched by miracles. A boy runs down an alley, a tray of loaves on his head. He dodges a rasping scooter, which hits the main drag and accelerates away through traffic. Life goes on.

            ‘Where’s the body?’

*

Cassius Gallio had reacted to yesterday’s rumour, of course he had. He came in late on a Sunday to follow up the lead, a sighting on the Emmaus road to the north of the city. Not the body but the man himself, apparently alive, a dead man walking. Gallio had sent Valeria to make enquiries, but it turned out to be nothing, peasant gossip about an executed convict and his seven-mile hike for lunch.

            If they were regular police, Gallio thought, he would have charged someone for wasting regular police time. Speculators were not regular police. He needed that body.

            First thing Monday morning he ordered a citywide search. He prepared his people for the worst—the shrunken lips, the livid meat—but the certainties of a dead body would put an end to any mystery. All through the day uniformed troops moved house to house, going in hard on the Lower City. Cellars, attics, any darkness that could conceal a folded adult corpse. Freezers. Gallio makes sure his people look inside the freezers, chest and wardrobe. The body could be whole, could be dissected. Check bathtubs for acid corrosion, and treat plastic sheeting as suspicious. Pick through building sites, anywhere with recently poured concrete.

            The forces of order know what to do. Sadly, this is neither the first nor last time they’ll search for a missing body.

            Gallio sends five-man cordons to walk the mountain scrub. No sign yet of a shallow grave. Valeria supervises the dive team at the reservoir and the Bethesda pool, where she clears out the cripples who’ve come for a cure. She finds no trace of weighted human remains dumped into the water. Gallio opens a series of tombs, an inspired hunch as a hiding place. The body isn’t there.

            Until further notice every cart and truck leaving Jerusalem will be security-checked at the city gates. Still no result. Think. Gallio orders raids on apothecaries suspected of trading in human body parts, eyes and spleens for the more costly curses and spells. Nothing. Think again. If anyone wants to move the body then spices or perfume would mask the smell. Gallio turns over shipments of nard and aloe, and at this troubled time Passover in Jerusalem smells like heaven.

            And of burned meat from the Temple sacrifices, and a haze of two-stroke. Maybe a night downstairs in the Antonia will put Judas back in touch with reality.

*

‘A local source tells me the way you betrayed him was foretold.’

            Gallio perches on the steel table-edge, next to Valeria. He licks the end of his biro, to remind Judas he’s expecting solid information worth noting down. Then he draws an irregular triangle like a head above one of the imperfect circles from yesterday.

Saliva doesn’t help, smears the ink.

            ‘Judas?’

            He’s not listening. Valeria slices him across the cheek with her laminated card. In an occupied territory the army are the cops, and the army cops have their own secret service, the Speculators. They don’t like their time being wasted. Valeria shapes for another hit, but making Judas flinch is enough.

            ‘His other followers knew what was going to happen, Judas.’ Gallio will have to spell it out to him. ‘The missing body was written in the prophecies. Ergo, you, Judas, also knew what would happen.’

            Instructions in the Event of Fire has opened a cut below his eye, and blood seeps through. Gallio rolls his eyes. Earlier than he’d have liked he leans back and flips a switch on the intercom. He says: ‘Chicken, now.’ In the starkness of the interview room his words sound like a code, as if he’s lost the habit of saying anything straight. Saying it twice may help. ‘Chicken, as soon as you can.’

            Judas has spent a night downstairs in the Antonia. He’s dirty and hungry. But also, Gallio concedes, the chicken does have a double meaning. Good cop. Judas is the asset, and the asset’s cover is blown. His eleven former companions, his ex-friends, despise him. He’ll appreciate every kindness.

            ‘Judas!’ Val stabs the stiff end of the card into his shoulder. Bad cop, an act but she’s a natural. ‘He knew what was going to happen and he planned every move, didn’t he? You might have warned us, said a little something in advance.’

            ‘I’m hungry,’ Judas says.

            They wait. A rotisserie chicken in a white and silver bag, an underpaid local recruit: he carries the bag past the security barriers, into the lift, out of the lift, through the manned gate to the reinforced door of the interview room. Keypad, authorised personnel only. Gallio goes to open the door, takes the bag that smells of grease and freedom. He says thanks, in good cop character, swings the door shut, hands the hot roast chicken to Judas.

            Cassius Gallio has a heart of gold, but Judas peers cautiously inside. A cloud of chicken steam billows to the ceiling. The chicken is not a trap, Judas, or a trick. Everything is as it seems.

            Judas pulls out the browned carcass, snaps it open and bites out the liver. Hungry. As he chews, the meat gives him strength. He breaks off a drumstick and points, jelly glistening on the hanging skin.

            ‘I kept you out of it. They trusted me.’

            Judas is an innocent, Judas is a baby. Obviously they didn’t trust him, or he’d know how they’d subverted a public execution. If he had their trust he could explain why the disciples, his former friends, were spreading misinformation about the dead man being alive. Judas had yet to volunteer a satisfactory answer as to why they were doing that.

            ‘They played you.’ Valeria keeps her amber eyes fixed on Judas, skims the laminated card onto the table, where it slides across the metal and drops to the floor. ‘Played us too. You’re nervous, Judas. Why is that? What reason do you have for being so nervous?’

            Valeria is a people person, who enjoys the intimate questions. Who are you? What are you afraid of? Will you ever leave your wife?

            ‘Your leader is dead, Judas,’ she says. ‘We watched him die, and it wasn’t pleasant, but he can’t hurt you now. The others, however, have worked you out. They recognized the signal you gave to trigger the arrest.’

            ‘We should have thought up something more subtle,’ Gallio adds. ‘Sorry, our mistake.’

            ‘They’ll be wondering where you are,’ Valeria builds the fear. ‘You’re seriously outnumbered.’

            ‘Eleven against one.’

            ‘Honestly,’ Judas says. He holds the chicken carcass in both hands. ‘We never discussed stealing the body. From the start of this you promised to protect me. It was the first thing you said.’

            He rips at the chicken breast with his teeth, chews and swallows, bites, chews, all body, no brain. He reduces life to the basic function of taking on fuel, hoping to block out the last few days, and the feeling that life and death have stopped following the basic expectations.

            ‘Judas. Look at me.’

            On the edge of the table, next to Valeria, Gallio is as close to his former inside man as can be. He leans forward and brings his blue eyes to bear. Sweat beads on the bridge of Judas’s nose. ‘Put down the bird, Judas.’

            Gallio lays his wrists on the man’s shoulders, his metal watchband hard against Judas’s collarbone, and he leans, making Judas heavier, a burden on his shoulders weighing him down. ‘Stop chewing, Judas. Good. Good boy. Mouth closed. Now look at me, Judas, look into my eyes. We want the truth about what happened this weekend, and don’t be frightened. We’re the good guys. We won’t let them fuck you up.’

*

Gallio himself takes plainclothes shifts at the hotel. He sits at the bar with his laptop and types out notes for a provisional report. Low priority, no cause for alarm. What they have here is an unusual but annoying theft. That is what this is. What it can’t possibly be, and what he refuses to contemplate, is died, risen, coming again.

            Unfortunately, being unreasonable is not against the law. The disciples can’t be arrested for their delusions, but they need to know they’re in trouble and under constant surveillance. Gallio wears the same jacket every day, so they’ll notice him, has his shoes shined in the lobby when they come down to breakfast because he wants them to know he’s watching. He makes a show of staring, hardly blinking, at eleven out-of-towners with plenty of hair and delicate fingers. They do not dress well, favouring lighter colours in the range between beige and cream. Cult uniformity, which is why Judas had to single out their leader: they all look alike.

            The disciples are agitated, glance left and right, know that Jerusalem is full of spies. ‘Agitated,’ Gallio adds to his notebook, next to the intricate lines of a diamond formation. He blocks out the letters, especially the capital A: years of training for this. He is supposed to make connections, work out how conspiracies against the civilized world fit together, but in this case he simply doesn’t know.

            Over the following days he chases leads with increasing desperation. In one tip-off the dead man is supposed to have appeared to his mother, alive and disguised as a gardener. Gallio rounds up the city’s registered gardeners. They vow to make a formal complaint to the Prefect, which is fine, but none of them remembers speaking to a distressed middle-aged lady on the day in question at or near the crime scene.

            So Gallio brings in the mother, because close family members are always suspects. Instead of a lawyer she insists on coming accompanied by one of the disciples, John. John recommends she exercise her right to remain silent.

            ‘Have you seen your son since the day of the execution?’

            She exercises her right, but John is ready to fill the silence. He’s a young man with barely enough beard to look the part, and thick glasses he pushes up his nose to punctuate the nonsense he likes to spout. According to John a man died, was in a tomb for three days, and then on the Sunday he came back to life and walked away. A god is involved.

            ‘That figures.’

            ‘He came back from the dead,’ John says. ‘Oh, fuck off.’

            But Cassius Gallio doesn’t have the evidence to prove John wrong. He lets them go, and in the fortress Gallio bans all discussion of resurrection as a potential line of enquiry. As an occupying force they have arguably imported some questionable laws, but there’s nothing debatable about laws of nature. The Complex Casework Unit will expect a rational explanation. Anything else is going to sound, coming from Cassius Gallio, like an excuse. A terrible excuse, especially from him, after the embarrassment of what happened with Lazarus.

           He still doesn’t understand how they did that. Lazarus died from multiple diseases. Cassius Gallio himself witnessed the wreck of the man in his final hours, and then the burial, but four days later Lazarus was alive again and dazed by sunshine in front of his tomb. Gallio couldn’t explain the mechanics, the trick, and since failing to come up with answers he’d been put on a caution. Complex Casework is taking an interest. He can’t afford to fail again.

From THE APOSTLE KILLER by Richard Beard. Used with permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2016 by Richard Beard.

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