Category Archives: Conspiracy Thriller

The Vivaldi Cipher by Gary McAvoy

Disclosure: I’m writing this review while listening to a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s a classical piece of music I’m sure most of us are familiar with, with all four violin concertos taking up less than 45 minutes (by which time I should be editing this review). Another disclosure: Gary McAvoy sent me an ARC of his latest book, for which I’m truly grateful; so not only am I listening to some Vivaldi, I’m writing about him, too, in a weird sort of way. Cheers, Gary.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Mr McAvoy’s fascinating and supremely entertaining Magdalene Trilogy. I reviewed each one of this very blog. I wondered if we the readers would hear from Fr Michael Dominic and his intrepid crew of fellow adventurers and relic-hunters again. I am happy to say that we are mere weeks away from the publication of a new book. The Vivaldi Cipher is being published on August 18, 2021. And if you’re a fan of the previous three books, then I’m happy to say that you’re in for a bigger treat.

Whereas Magdalene focused on the search for the truth behind the mystery of Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus, as well as a cover-up within the Vatican City regarding her gospel and the eventual discovery of her final resting place, Gary McAvoy takes us in another direction. This time he uses his extensive knowledge and research to uncover some unpleasant truths behind the massive art collection that’s housed within the walls of the papal city. And the mystery is no less intriguing, particularly when our heroes are faced with life or death scenarios in nearly every chapter, thanks to the Camorra, one of the oldest and largest criminal organisations in Italy.

The prologue sets the scene. It’s the mid-18th century and a new pope is about to be elected. However, one of the favourites for the highest position in Christendom is poisoned, and just before his death he passes on a secret to Vivaldi who, and not many people know this, was training to become a priest. Horrified by what he hears, he knows he must share it with the world. But how can he do so without putting himself in peril? The answer is simple: he hides it in a piece of music. Nearly three hundred years later, the leader of the Camorra has a crisis of conscience, and on his death bed confesses a similar secret to Fr Rinaldo, a local priest. Lucky for him, his friend Fr Dominic is in town, Venice to be precise, and Fr Rinaldo confides in Dominic as much as he can without breaking the all important seal of confession. Dominic and his journalist friend, Hana Sinclair, enlist the help of cryptologist Dr Livia Galla, and together they play detective. Finding themselves involved in a centuries-old plot to defraud the Vatican, they chase leads up and down dark alley ways and canals. Aided by Karl and Lukas, from the elite Swiss Guard, and Marco Picard, a Green Beret and Hana’s bodyguard and now lover, the closer they get to the truth, the closer they are to certain death.

Gary McAvoy

This book is a blast. It is so entertaining and fast moving, that I could barely draw breath at times. And yet, like Mr McAvoy’s previous books, I got myself an education. I was taken on a tour of Venice that not only included an art and music history lesson, but by God, some of the food these characters eat had my mouth watering, too. I felt I was in Venice a lot of the time. And now I need to go for real, though not via cruise ships. I must also beware of pigeons. Everything that made the Magdalene Trilogy one of my favourite reads of the year is here in spades. The Vivaldi Cipher is also markedly more violent than its predecessors, which is the right way to go because of the active presence of organised crime. People die and die quickly. Parts of the book might not be for the faint-hearted, but let this not be a distracted from a welcome change of pace and location. Yes, there is still skullduggery to be found within the Vatican, but the good guys will always win out. This time, however, there will be a cost.

Next book, please, Gary. Your readers and I are waiting.

Blue Madagascar by Andrew Kaplan

There was a period in my life in the early to mid 80s when I read everything the thriller writer Robert Ludlum published. At the time I was working in a hotel in north Dublin, and I spent a lot of shifts manning the phones at reception. By this point I hadn’t yet read any of the Jason Bourne trilogy, but my manager put me wide straight away. They still hold a place of fondness in my list of favourite books, and after Ludlum passed away, I couldn’t read any of the other books published by permission of his estate. I hear Eric van Lustbader did a great job, but I was finished with literary Jason Bourne once The Bourne Ultimatum was published. I remain a big fan of the Matt Damon/Paul Greengrass movies, though.

That said, I remained on the lookout for books of a similar type, and through NetGalley I found Blue Madagascar by New York Times bestselling author Andrew Kaplan. Kaplan is the author of Homeland: Carrie’s Game, the official prequel to the award-winning television show, and followed this up with a novel that focused on another of Homeland’s main characters, Saul Berenon. This book, Saul’s Game, went on to win the Scribe Best Novel of the Year. Kaplan is also the author of the Scorpion series of thriller novels as well as a bunch of stand-alone books. But what caught my eye about Blue Madagascar was how its plot brought me back to those halcyon days of Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, and John le Carre. The story takes its characters and readers on a whistlestop tour through some of the most picaresque and dangerous locations in the world.

The plot’s cold open is tight, effective, and shocking. It’s mere days away from the presidential election and the apparent front-runner, by a county mile, is dead, allegedly by his own hand. The political process is thrown into disarray, and there are reports of an unknown woman who may or may not be responsible for the man’s death. We won’t know this for a while because the story then moves back in time to a heist gone wrong in Nice on the south coast of France. A previously well-planned robbery of a jewellery store ends up with an innocent American tourist dead, and his companion, inexplicably, escaping with the robbers. French investigators realise that the dead man has lived under a false identity and their attempts to gain assistance from U.S. authorities have mixed results at best. But the Department of Homeland Security sends one of their agents, Casey Ramirez, to help and hinder the investigation.

Casey is a fascinating character. Shunted into the foster care system due to her mother being a constant jailbird and liaising with men who abused both Casey and her sister, Casey’s talents and fearlessness gets the attention of the DHS, and she becomes one of their best investigators. Haunted by the memory of her sister, missing for many years, Casey hopes that one day her career will give her the answers she so desperately needs. In the meantime, she has a mission to find out who this dead American is, and pretty soon she’s following a trail of bodies that takes her to places and people that are more dangerous than she could have imagined. Behind it all is the secret of Blue Madagascar. What is it, and why did it make a seemingly innocent witness to murder join up with a gang of thieves?

Andrew Kaplan

And the most important question, perhaps, what does it have to do with the apparent suicide of a presidential election candidate?

There was a lot for me to sink my reader’s teeth into with Blue Madagascar. I enjoyed the thrill of the ride, the constant intrigue, the twists, and the number of times Casey needs to escape from almost certain death. The villains of the piece — for there are many — have their own agendas, often clashing with each other for personal reasons. This book has the lot: car chases, family secrets, bosses who Casey doesn’t trust a lot of the time, and a pervading sense of menace and deadly threats. Supporting characters remain important to the book, and it’s not just a cat-and-mouse story. At the heart of Blue Madagascar is a woman who only wants to know if her sister is alive. By the end of the book, we might get an answer to this question. And a possible sequel.

The Magdalene Veil by Gary McAvoy

The Easter break is over, and so too is my reading of Gary McAvoy’s hugely entertaining Magdalene trilogy, which started with The Magdalene Deception, continued with The Magdalene Reliquary, and now concludes with The Magdalene Veil. During the course of these three fast-moving and engaging adventures, we follow the same trail of breadcrumbs scattered throughout history that the trilogy’s main characters do. Whether or not they lead you to the same crisis of faith Fr Michael Dominic faces is beside the point; the thrill is in the journey.

In each of the preceding novels I was able to relate them to some other book or movie that had captured my interest in the past. With The Magdalene Veil, my thoughts turned to one of each: Where Eagle’s Dare (1968), the preposterously entertaining WWII romp with Richard Burton and a brilliantly sardonic Clint Eastwood who, if they weren’t killing Nazis, were calling Danny Boy on the radio; and Ira Levin’s conspiracy thriller The Boys From Brazil, also a movie, starring the ultimate in odd couples, Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, Oscar winners both. The Magdalene Veil takes concepts from both movies and books and runs with them in a couple of very surprising ways.

Much has been made of the Third Reich’s interest in the occult. Anyone who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark might be aware that Hitler was indeed a “nut on the subject”. So much so, he and his evil goons set up an organisation called the Ahnenerbe, tasked with justifying their hatred of the Jewish race by delving deep into Aryan ancestry and uncovering shared DNA with the biblical Jesus. Heinrich Himmler allegedly finds the proof he needs, but before he can escape to Argentina with the relic, he is caught by Allied forces and kills himself. Fast forward to the present day, and Fr Dominic and his friend, journalist Hana Sinclair, are approached by a man who claims he knows, via a diary his father kept, where this relic can be found. Of course the path to glory rarely runs smooth, especially when exiled Nazis are lurking around every corner.

The bulk of the action this time around takes place in Bariloche, a German settlement in the Patagonia region of Argentina. The South American country is also the place where the former Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Dante, has been exiled to. He finds fellow conspirators in the burgeoning neo-Nazi community (as you naturally would if you were fake-Catholic, I guess). Eventually he will have to cross swords with the people who put him there.

All of the elements that made the first two books in the series enjoyable to me are present here. The two Swiss Guards, Karl and Lukas, are in their element, using the skills they inherited from their training to aid in rescue and recovery missions. I’d have these two on my team of bodyguards any day of the week, if such a service was ever needed. Hana’s grandfather always has a private jet lying idle, which comes in handy for fast, frictionless international travel. And there’s always God, who will take the side of the righteous when things don’t go according to human planning. He’s normally reliable that way.

Gary McAvoy utilises his own skill-set perfectly well, too, mixing historical fact with historical fiction. He very helpfully links his research at the end of the novel, and all he wants is for readers to be entertained and to want to read more about the secret history of the Third Reich. When the Nazis get what they deserve, it’s hard not to pump your fist with victory. Because who doesn’t want to see Nazis defeated all day every day?

I enjoyed reading these books and I would recomment them to fans of Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown. My thanks to Gary McAvoy for providing me with a copy of The Magdalene Veil in exchange for an honest review. I loved it. Honestly.

The Magdalene Reliquary by Gary McAvoy

Hot off the heels from reading The Magdalene Deception, I found myself wanting to immediately carry on with book two of the series. So, after reading and reviewing three other books, two for NetGally and one for pleasure, I figured it was time to laze away a few hours with the secretive world of the Vatican Archives and the curious one of Fr Michael Dominic and his motley crew of talented friends and assistants. I was happy I did, because I thoroughly enjoyed The Magdalene Reliquary.

Dominic had his faith in the Catholic Church’s teachings and philosophies sorely tested in Deception. Not only that, but he and his journalist friend, Hana Sinclair, barely escaped with their lives. You would forgive both of them for wanting an easy life, and staying away from documents of dubious origins. For the most part, this works well. Dominic’s mentor, Cardinal Petrini, is now Secretary of State, having usurped the boo-hiss villain Dante and sent him to Argentina, with the pope’s blessing, of course. But Dante isn’t one for taking this lying down, and very soon he’s aligned himself once again with the ultra-nationalist group, the Novi Ustasha, led now by Ivan Govic, the son of the man Dominic killed (in self-defence, it must be said) in the previous book. Dante wants his position back, and he’s not above resorting to simple blackmail and turning a blind eye to murder.

The quest this time involves a box that contains a relic from the time of Christ. Once more there is a connection to Mary Magdalene; and once more the origins of this relic could turn the Catholic Church on its head. So far so very similar to author Gary McAvoy’s debut in the series. But McAvoy ups the stakes nicely, placing his characters in mortal danger quite early in the book. If you’re claustrophobic you might find the descent into the caves of France a touch disconcerting, especially when a gang of right-wing terrorists turn up with enough explosives to blow our heroes to Kingdom Come. Not only do Dominic, Hana, and co. have to deal with secret mysteries and bad faith actors in the Vatican, but they have a new adversary: Dmitry Kharkov is your typical Russian oligarch, with friends in high and low places. He wants whatever is in that box so he can add it to his collection of priceless art and religious iconography. He’s a bad guy and more than a match for our heroes.

When I read the first book in this series, my thoughts went back to a television miniseries called The Word, based on the bestselling novel by Irving Wallace. I watched it back in the day. It was about a new gospel, written by James the Just, the brother of Jesus, and it maintained that Jesus didn’t die on the cross but survived for a good number of years before ascending into heaven. It’s worth checking out, with a three hour cut available on YouTube. This book, The Magdalene Reliquary, brought to mind the works of Morris West, in particular The Shoes of the Fisherman. I was always fascinated by the inner workings of the Vatican City, and while West’s book is less about conspiracy and more about politics, McAvoy’s book could almost be seen as a companion piece.

Gary McAvoy (photo: reedsy.com)

The supporting characters come into their own in Reliquary, with special attention to the engaging trio of Swiss Guards. This sometimes come at a cost to Hana’s character development, but she does have her moments to shine: she knows all the right people. This book has everything that made the first book a great read, and then some. I do wish, though, that the dialogue was less clunky and expository, but I cannot fault Gary McAvoy for leading us through all the research he did for his series. I am now seriously excited to see how the trilogy comes to a close with The Magdalene Veil.

The Magdalene Deception by Gary McAvoy

One of the greatest pleasures of my life was a trip to Rome with a dear friend in October 2012. (Remember being able to travel to different countries? Oh the joy! How we all miss right now what we used to take for granted!) My travelling companion and I managed to take a free tour of the Vatican while we were there. It was breath-taking, awe-inspiring, and full of tourists like ourselves. The Sistine Chapel has to be seen with human eyes to be fully appreciated. And of course, being an Irishman, Catholicism will be forever ingrained in my ethos despite it being a bad smell I’d like to get rid of. But still — the Vatican: just wow!

The Magdalene Deception is the first in a series of books called The Magdalene Chronicles, and it is written by Gary McAvoy, a military veteran, a tech entrepreneur, and a dealer in rare manuscripts, with all of these hats vying for attention in his debut fiction novel. And for the most part, he juggles these balls successfully.

Michael Dominic is a Jesuit priest: young, brash, handsome, and loyal to his father figure, the Brazilian cardinal Enrico Petrini. His calling to the Church is more out of a sense of said loyalty than spiritual devotion, but it does provide him with an outlet for his other passion. Father Dominic is a medievalist, and he has secured a great position within the Vatican, working as an archivist in its massive library, He could spend all the years of his life poring over the literally millions of documents from centuries past and he would still not see them all. But chance gives him his first encounter with the many secrets the Vatican hides and indeed controls.

Many of us will be familiar with Dan Brown’s megasellers The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons. If you’ve not read the books, it’s probable you’ve seen the movies adapted from them. They’re potboilers and not meant to be taken seriously despite them fueling a ton of conspiracy theories over the last couple of decades. They’re fun reads, and that’s that. The Magdalene Deception trods a similar path, in that there is alleged evidenciary proof of a document that threatens to turn the Catholic Church and its followers into a tailspin of denial shock. The Jesuit priest stumbles on this document by accident and this sets off a chain of events that force the novel’s main antagonist, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Dante, to use whatever means possible to suppress the investigation.

Running alongside the main plot is yet another investigation, this time concerning Hana Sinclair, a journalist who’s looking into the connection between Nazi plundered gold and a shadow group who help return this fortune to those it was taken from. Her contacts include the president of France, her grandfather, and Father Dominic’s mentor, Cardinal Petrini. The role of wartime pope, Pius XII, is examined and criticised for his alleged inactions during the Nazi occupation of Europe and the subsequent Holocaust. The involvement of the Croatian far-right militia, the Ustasha, echoes into the novel’s plot, too, and the powers-that-be in the Vatican have their hands dirty with them. There is a lot going in here.

Gary McAvoy

Father Dominic and Hana join forces when it becomes plain to both that their individual investigations have a common purpose. While I always enjoy conspiracy theories in fictional form, I was drawn to Hana’s plotline more. It led me down a rabbit hole of espionage and subterfuge that fascinated me. I liked how Gary McAvoy worked historical figures into a fictional novel. I love when writers do this.

McAvoy also impressed me with his historical research. The novel is peppered with facts and figures, and it is all the better for it. What is lacks, however, is a sense of danger for the main characters. Yes, the matters at hand are urgent and so much is at stake, but I never anxious for the priest and the journalist., regardless of the danger they put themselves in. I was more worried for the supporting characters, especially Hana’s cousin, Karl the Swiss Guard, and Cardinal Petrini. (Note: Swiss Guards are well-trained bad-asses–every state should have their own, not just the Vatican City.) But there is genuine intrigue. I did want to know what was going to happen to the document at the end, and I was reasonably satisfied with the novel’s denouement. This is a plus for me, because I want to read the next book, The Magdalene Reliquary. I want to see what McAvoy comes up with next. Both books are available for those with a Kindle Unlimited account, and you’ll read them and be entertained and educated for a few days. You can’t ask better than that.