Sunday, March 03, 2013

His Eminence, Death

Early in his writing career, long before hitting it big with his 1981 novel GORKY PARK and just after penning a pair of Nick Carter potboilers, Martin Cruz Smith invited a unique men's adventure character called the Inquisitor. Francis Xavier Killy is basically a spy for the Catholic Church. Based in The Vatican, Killy is a former CIA agent who takes on missions for the Church. Because he's a Believer and a member of the Church, he must do penance after each mission: ten days on bread and water for every man he kills.

You have to hand it to Smith, who wrote the Killy novels as "Simon Quinn": it's a heck of an idea. I liked the first Inquisitor novel quite a bit, but the fourth, HIS EMINENCE, DEATH (Dell, 1974), is a bit lacking, despite one crackerjack suspense piece. The stakes are low, the action content is low, and the villain isn't terrible interesting.

Cruz sets up the story nicely. A priest is threatened by a black mamba and then shot to death. Another priest is caught in a compromising position with a sexy young black woman. A cardinal awakens in his highly guarded bedroom to discover gore and body parts strewn around.

The villain, whom we unfortunately don't get to know as well as I would have liked, is a one-armed killer with an eye patch, Klein, who is believed to be dead. Cruz spends about half the 159-page paperback setting up the plot, which is that Klein is hired to assassinate a religious fanatic, John Cardinal Mema. Killy is assigned to protect Mema, despite the fact that Mema wants to die a martyr.

Cruz does a good job with the action scenes, but the book's best part contains no "action" at all. Having been seduced into a cruise ship bathtub (see "sexy young black woman" above), Killy freezes to discover his companion is an eight-foot sea snake, the deadliest reptile of all. Instead of relying on brawns or weaponry, Killy has to think his way out of a situation that would have even the best of us frozen in fear.

Despite the good parts, HIS EMINENCE, DEATH didn't work for me as well as the earlier Inquisitor I read. A stronger plot and a beefier part for the villain would have helped, though the novel is admittedly a quick and breezy read.

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