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The Parchment

A Novel

Gerald McLaughlin

304 pp.  

Lindisfarne Books


Published:  January 2005


It is A.D. 70, and Evardus, a wine merchant from Gaul, has encountered a dying rabbi on a road outside of Jerusalem. With his final breaths, the old man urgently tells Evardus that Jewish priests have spirited sacred objects and records away from Herod's Temple in the hope of keeping them out of the hands of Roman soldiers—who are, at that very moment, attacking Jerusalem and destroying the Jews' most holy site. The merchant learns of a copper scroll hidden beneath the Holy of Holies and a map that leads to the holy objects.

A thousand years later, while on a Crusade to Palestine, a descendant of the merchant finally uncovers those secrets below the temple. They include an astonishing parchment that threatens the very foundations of the Church and Christianity. The grand master of the Templars develops a scheme to advance the interests of his order, but the plan has devastating consequences. The parchment survives, however, and for nearly a millennium remains hidden in plain sight. With the dawning of the twenty-first century and pivotal world events, two American professors discover the document while researching a book. Like those before, they are tempted to use it for their own purposes. The course they pursue leads to unforeseen consequences that affect events in the Middle East and a crucial turning point for the Vatican.

Gerald McLaughlin shows us a rich, haunting tableau that spans two thousand years. We are given a timely glimpse into the often-disastrous ways that we tend to deal with faith when confronted by fear and ambition, and how moral choices are made in the face of the continuing battle between good and evil—both in ourselves and in the world. Ultimately, the author shines a light of profound hope and faith into the darkest recesses of the human soul, our modern life, and world events.

Reviews & Endorsements:

SciFi Dimensions - Online Science Fiction Magazine

Review by Carlos Aranaga © 2005

Published in December 2004, Gerald T. McLaughlin’s The Parchment pulls an uncanny case of divination by plotting out a thriller set in the Vatican of the near future and revolving, among other things, on the encroaching senility and passing from the scene of Pope Benedict XVI, successor to Pope John Paul II. This, mind you, in a book released four months before anyone imagined that there would be a Pope Benedict.

McLaughlin’s clairvoyance extends to the confusion as to whether or not the smoke first appearing to the throngs of the faithful was white or black.

Having absorbed that, it becomes clear in short order that this is a fast-paced, creditable first-time effort at the novelistic art by McLaughlin. Perhaps even too fast paced. One might wish he would have lingered longer to examine motives, included more dialogue in places, or in others paused a bit longer to describe exotic historic settings that stretch from the Roman sacking of Jerusalem, to the medieval Crusades, and to the drama of the selection of a new pope.

McLaughlin does a marvelous job of capturing an insider’s glimpse at the papal curia, the College of Cardinals, and the philosophic and the political divides between old guard and liberal prelates and between Catholics in the Old World and the Third World. The Parchment comes down clearly in favor of the old guard as it casts would be reformers as the greater evil, even when set against a Church establishment that is alleged here to have all too cozy relations with Italian organized crime.

The crux of the story is a parchment, found by hapless researchers, that casts doubt on Christ’s celibacy. Did Jesus have a wife and kids? No matter that this is the church plagued by sex scandals that would not, perhaps, have happened had priests been drawn from the ordinary run of men with ordinary lives and families. That Christ may have been more fully human than dreamed of in their theologies is enough to set extortion and murder roiling behind the papal succession process’s closed doors.

The parchment has its own history of creating turmoil, as it is posited here that its secret has been passed down across the millennia by one family, a family integrally involved in the story of the Knights Templar, a medieval order that grew up around the Crusades and that met its demise as its power became a threat to divine-right kings who brought down the Knights with public accusations of heresy and sexual perfidy.

Particularly interesting is the déjà vu we feel as we follow the Knights in their attempt to permanently retake the Holy Land for Christendom and their rough treatment of Saracens and other Mohammedans. It needs only the substitution of desert fatigues for coats of armor and of humvees for mounted steeds to bring the accounts right up to date. A major subplot here, in fact, is the ongoing struggle between Israel and Palestinian militants and the moral and military suasion from outside powers that is constantly brought to bear on this tinderbox region of such importance to people of radically different faiths and convictions.

For all its historical sweep, this is basically light summer reading. It is not ponderous in the least. If the story draws you in, you can be done with it in a couple of sittings at the beach. While I wish it had lasted a bit longer, in a day when novelists indulge in stream of consciousness writing to create veritable walls of words, it’s altogether refreshing to find a tale deftly and economically told. The Parchment is a nice first outing by novice fiction writer Gerald T. McLaughlin. Do check it out.

Reviewer - Carlos Aranaga is a life-long SF connoisseur, world traveler and man of letters, born in the Andes, and who at various times has occupied temporal coordinates in Atlanta, Bangladesh, Bolivia, India, and Maryland, USA.
A controversial Jewish census record from Roman times ... a heroic Vatican official ... a difficult moral decision that could potentially damage the papacy irreparably.

Those are some of the elements in The Parchment, an historical novel that appears at a time when papal transition is an increasingly discussed topic. It was written by former Loyola Law School dean Gerald McLaughlin, who calls it “an historical thriller” but admits that, when history and the plot collide, he opts for the plot. “I’m not writing for professional historians but for the average reader,” he smiles.

The novel’s hero is Cardinal Francesco Barbo, Vatican Secretary of State. Other characters include the savage Roman General Tutus, who destroys the holy city of Jerusalem, forcing a rabbi to bury the census record; the Avignon Pope, Clement V, who succumbs to pressure from the French King to suppress the legendary Knights of the Temple of Solomon, who possess the document; the fictional Pope Benedict, who abdicates in the face of his progressive Alzheimer’s disease; and Benedict’s urbane successor, Pope Paul VII, who may owe his election as Supreme Pontiff to the Mafia.

The Parchment also deals with papal abdication, the Crusades, the Mafia, ancient forgeries, and contemporary blackmail. And, the intricacies of a papal election—an election where a leading candidate is forced to withdraw because of his involvement in homicide and where a second candidate withdraws to help bring peace to the Middle East.

McLaughlin says he was inspired to write The Parchment after becoming interested, through a friend, in the Knights Templar. “I decided to write a thriller about them,” he says. “But new characters kept getting added to the story.”

Being a lawyer, he laughs, was the biggest obstacle he faced in writing the novel. “Lawyers are trained to write clearly—there are three reasons for this or that,” he explains. “You can’t write a novel that way. Imagine Polonius telling his son Laertes not to lend or borrow money for three reasons. Writing like this would soon turn off the reader. In fiction, you must portray, not say.”

Learning to write believable dialogue was also a challenge. “My first draft of the novel had my characters declaiming things to each other, usually in twenty lines of text,” he says. “People don’t talk that way—at least not the people I know. I started to listen to how people really communicated with each other. It was a revelation. Capturing the rhythm and sound of how people talked was a great personal victory for me as a writer.”
—Mike Nelson

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