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By Dorothy Cole, Gaylon M. Parsons

JANUARY 25, 1999: 

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
by Jose Saramago (Harcourt Brace, paper, $14)

I love this stuff. Saramago received the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature and, judging from this book, it wasn't just because he's from a small country. Saramago successfully blends traditional, canonical, legendary and historical versions of the life of Christ in a work of pure fiction and rational explanation. His straightforward prose style, translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero, treats fact and mystery as sides of the same coin. The research involved must have been impressive.

This book has something to offend the most devout atheist as well as the usual blasphemy-fearing Christian whose faith is easily threatened. The Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed breaks all the rules: he's friendly with demons, sleeps with Mary Magdalene and disrespects his mother. In other words, he's a human surrounded by other humans with faults and priorities of their own. Instead of some otherworldly being who never faces real temptation, he's a man who overcomes his own sinful nature. He also performs miracles daily and holds a long conversation with God about the specific fate of martyrs and the future of the Catholic Church.

Some of the best passages concern Mary and Joseph before the baby's birth and during his childhood. Because tradition is less detailed, Saramago is able to be more inventive in granting them personalities and motives. Mary Magdalene comes across as the standard whore with a heart of gold. Other invented characters, like Jesus' younger brothers and sisters, are more memorable. The wedding at Cana is shown as his last meeting with his birth family and mingles miracle and rumor with the real pain of parting from loved ones to pursue a different life.

With Satan as fallen angel, uncle and mentor, the world takes on a decidedly dualistic cast. Theologically that may present problems, but it allows for a genuine and unsentimental exploration of the ways in which the hero is both the son of God and the child of Joseph the carpenter. Both inheritances bring him great personal sorrow. In some particulars, this book is how it must have been; other episodes are at least plausible. The author resists the urge to pretend we don't know what happens next, as if we'd never heard this tale before. Thus he's able to bring in something new. (DC)



Angels Flight
by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown, cloth, $25)

Connelly's latest Hieronymous Bosch novel, the fifth in the series, stays close to the tried-and-true formula created by Raymond Chandler. For fans of crime and detective novels, Michael Connelly is a treasure. He creates classic '40s- and '50s-style entertainment around such institutions as murder, paranoia and corruption. Although the novel feels like 1949, it is filled with the technology of 1999. Cell phones, pagers and the Internet coexist with the oldest human fears and passions. Angels Flight centers on the jaundiced post-riot Los Angeles Police Department and a lawyer whose career prospers thanks to the abuses of power perpetrated by the organization.

Hieronymous Bosch, a maverick detective cut from the same cloth as Philip Marlowe, differs from many of his predecessors in that he works within the police department. Chandler's Marlowe, and most other noir investigators, are independent agents who can do things forbidden to legitimate officers of the law. They are lone pursuers of the truth, often

acting as adjuncts to official law enforcement. In the aftermath of Rodney King, however, the idea that police officers are constrained by the law they swear to enforce seems quaint. If there's room for a Mark Fuhrman, there's room in the LAPD for an anti-hierarchical, intelligent quasi-free agent whose search for the truth leads him up toward new, more frightening barbarism.

The character of Hieronymous Bosch, besides having a name perfect for the noir sensibility, also suffers from the isolation and lack of sleep endemic to his calling. In the middle of a night spent waiting for his wife to come home, Bosch's phone rings. He and his two other detectives are called out to a murder scene. The victim: a prominent opponent of the LAPD. The suspects: cops. Bosch's bosses in the department want, more than truth, to avoid riots and unrest resulting from the murder. Bosch, with the vigor of the righteous, goes to work on the evidence, ignoring political expediency.

Connelly has studied and mastered the art of hard-boiled detective fiction. This work is not as inventive as Will Christopher Baer's Kiss Me, Judas, but it is highly competent entertainment. The lone weakness of the novel, Bosch's tendency to relive his past a little too readily, could be seen as charming by readers familiar with Connelly's other work. Great reading for a cold dark winter's night. (GM)


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