- - Monday, January 18, 2016


By Christopher Buckley

Simon & Schuster, $26.95, 383 pages


It isn’t easy being the only son of a celebrated author or actor, especially if you go into the same line of work. An old friend, the late Douglas Fairbanks Jr., with countless film and stage triumphs to his credit, went to his grave still referred to as the son of the “great” Douglas Fairbanks Sr., even though the son’s acting career lasted far longer and included highly intelligent acting, scripting and directing far beyond his father’s capabilities. Similarly, Christopher Buckley, one of our most versatile comic novelists with 16 books — many of them critical and commercial successes — and one play to his credit, is still frequently identified as the son of William F. Buckley Jr., an incredibly talented and energetic polymath who helped create the modern American conservative movement, founded its longtime flagship magazine, National Review, was the most widely syndicated conservative columnist for more than a generation and, as the host of “Firing Line,” launched the first nationally distributed conservative television program. He was also a prolific writer of light espionage novels.

Rather than trying to be a second Bill Buckley, his son has carved himself a distinct and distinguished literary niche as a writer of howlingly funny but also intelligent novels and magazine pieces. Many readers will be most familiar with such works as, “The White House Mess”and “Thank You for Smoking,” both rollicking good reads with inside-the-Beltway settings. And, of course, there was his poignant parental memoir, “Losing Mum and Pup,” a book that was unsparingly honest in its depiction of his two fascinating, larger-than-life parents, but was suffused with love and understanding as well. Given his family’s strong Catholic roots, it is not surprising that, in between satirical novels and articles, Christopher Buckley also wrote a play, “Campion,” about a martyred English priest. A labor of love rather than a work designed to please a mass audience, “Campion” sank, pretty much without a trace. The cobbler returned to his last job and continued to churn out well-crafted, contemporary social and political satire.

Until now. As the 2016 election cycle approached, Mr. Buckley, in the words of his publisher, “concluded that American politics were sufficiently self-satirizing and decided to venture backward in time to a more innocent, less cynical era and place … .” Backward in time, yes, but not really more innocent and less cynical. Sixteenth-century Europe, in particular 16th-century Germany (then the Holy Roman Empire), was a time and place of incredible social, political and religious ferment. Our hero, Dismas, the “Relic Master” of the title, is a retired Swiss mercenary who deals in holy relics for a princely clientele, and whose job brings him into collision with a decadent Catholic hierarchy, the beginning of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, and a gallery of real Renaissance characters ranging from the greatest German artist of the period, Albrecht Durer, to Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, arguably the first modern European physician.

The fictitious characters are interesting in their own right, from brutal but doggedly faithful-to-their-pack Landsknechts (German soldiers of fortune), to quirky clerics, some devious, some devout, and to Dismas himself, a decent man trying to make an honest living in an increasingly corrupt world. Intrigue, romance — but no explicit sex — combine with a serpentine conspiracy plot and incredible bursts of blood and gore. The result mixes elements of classic Victorian adventure yarns by writers like H. Rider Haggard, with a distinctly modern, dry humor along Martin Amis lines. As for period detail, Mr. Buckley has done a better job than most historical novelists. There are times, however, when humorous allusions to contemporary events sneak in; a Ponzi scheme crook named “Master Bernhardt” (shades of Bernie Madoff) comes to mind. And there are a few embarrassing anachronisms. Characters attend a “wine and cheese reception,” the hero repeatedly calls his friend Albrecht Durer a “narcissist,” a word that wasn’t introduced until 1822, while grapeshot is used as artillery ammo although it was not developed until more than 200 years later. The author also gets his titles jumbled, with dukes being referred to as “your majesty” (a title reserved for kings), and powers that should be referred to as “ducal” mislabeled as “royal.”

None of which detracts in any serious way from an intelligent, entertaining and informative bit of time travel that will delight readers who appreciate history served up with humor.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide