The Parchment: A Novel by Gerald T. McLaughlin, FCRH ’63, 304 pages. Lindisfarne Books, 2004. $24.95.
Like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, The Parchment is a fast-paced thriller driven by a plot involving church history, conspiracy and the possibility that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children. Unlike Brown’s bestselling book, however, The Parchment eschews clever riddles for geopolitics, and its hero is not an art historian but a fictional Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Francesco Barbo.
First-time novelist Gerald T. McLaughlin, dean emeritus and professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, studied classics as an undergraduate at Fordham University, and that training (more than his distinguished background as a legal scholar) is evident in The Parchment. But McLaughlin—who has said that in writing the book, he invariably favored plot when history and plot collided—wears his classics training lightly as he spins a tale that spans centuries.
The novel begins during the first century A.D., when a wine merchant near Jerusalem first hears about sacred objects and records removed from Herod’s Temple, and extends to the present day, when the accidental rediscovery by a couple of scholars working in the Vatican Library of one of those objects—a parchment containing first-century census data that may indicate that Jesus of Nazareth had descendants—has serious implications for the Arab-Israeli conflict and papal succession. Along the way, readers meet a host of characters, historical and fictional, including Pope Clement V; the Knights Templar, who possess the parchment during the Middle Ages; and a fictional modern-day pope who, struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, abdicates, paving the way for a successor with ties to the Mafia. But it is the action-packed plot (not the characters) that drives The Parchment, with its focus on papal abdication and succession, the Crusades, geopolitical intrigue and conspiracy—more than enough to keep readers turning pages deep into the night.