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The Last Days

The Apocryphon of Joe Panther

by Andrew Masterson. Picador, Sydney, 1998. ISBN 0-330-36059-0

A Review by David Carroll

'One more step,' she yelled, 'and the Messiah gets it!'

Ah, blasphemy can be a fine thing — and an easy thing, too. It doesn't take much to insult the gods. A simple "your God kisses goat's bums" will likely do it, although "your God couldn't even create a rock He couldn't lift" is a classic, and may give you enough time to run away while they're puzzling it out.

These days you're less likely to be strung up, stoned, drowned or generally mistreated for such behaviour, although the current conflict sparked by difference of religious belief should not be ignored (I am, of course, talking about the feud between the Freemasons and the Anglicans, although I'm told there's some colonial unrest over Afghanistan way as well). I suspect there's a few people out there who would like to visit some Biblical vengeance on Andrew Masterson for his novel The Last Days. Let's find out why.

Joe Panther is a down-on-his luck investigator, called in to help his friend Father Brendan Corrigan in the matter of a death in the parish. This isn't a run-of-the-mill murder — a local street girl has been crucified above the altar of Corrigan's church, her head delivered separately in a box. But then, Joe isn't exactly a run-of-the-mill investigator. His experience with murder has mostly been from that of culprit ('when circumstances dictated') — or victim. A little under two thousand years ago, Joe was strung up on a cross himself, at Golgotha. He was and is Jesus, the Son of God, still walking the Earth — more precisely, inner-city Melbourne — and not at all happy.

Or so he claims in the narration. He generally remains oblique on the subject to those who know him, to varying levels of success. Whether he is right or not is a different matter.

Maybe all this is the ultimate intersection of conspiracy theory and divine will — or the attempt at justification of a mind having to face its own insanity. After the finale, these possibilities may not seem so far-fetched.

It's an audacious premise for a novel, but it does not stop there by any means. Masterson manages to weave the theology together with a reasonably taut crime novel and bleed the conventions of each into one another. On the theology side, there is a dizzying array of historical anecdote, classical quotation and biblical reinterpretation, plus a bit of mysticism on the side, all arranged precisely. On the crime side there is increasing ripples of significance as the investigation into the murder starts taking on international ramifications, and perhaps beyond. The characters and writing style capture this perfectly, from the clergy to the cops and a diverse array of suspects, none of whom may be quite what they seem. It's all interwoven with clever detail, some excellent descriptions of Melbourne locales, pop- and occult- culture references, puns, genuine wit and wry asides that builds up to a scene of incredible farce.

It is, in fact, quite a trip. And for the most part, it works very well indeed. There are certainly details that, while they tend to go by at a fair speed, nonetheless seem somewhat contrived in hindsight, particularly in the matters of criminal investigation. The inability of one of the characters to get hold of a particular zip disk is never explained, nor their inability to discover more about the mother of the victim (I'm trying not to give too much away here). The whole password thing is a bit suss as well, but it's not like I can name any fictional works that portray computer security accurately off the top of my head. I liked the pay off of Joe in the Melbourne Casino, but the set-up could perhaps have been handled better.

Released a few years ago now, the novel seems to have gained most notice in the crime field. It won its author a Ned Kelly Award for best first novel, and certainly has allowed him to continue writing — including a sequel called The Second Coming of Joe Panther and two other novels so far. The Second Coming has been described to me as more of a straight crime novel, though I haven't confirmed that as yet. The Last Days is a more contrary thing. As well as crime, theology and farce there is also brutality that ventures into horror territory, and even tropes of science fiction. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is its examination of the very idea of blasphemy and the survival of the concept of religion.

I really can't compare The Last Days to too many other books, perhaps because I haven't read much crime. But many other interesting correspondences come to mind. The modern day survival of gods, whether Christian or otherwise, has been handled very well in the comic field over the past decade of so — I'm talking the likes of Sandman and other Vertigo work, plus Eddie Campbell's Bacchus (I also remember the excellent run of Mike Grell's Green Arrow which got the whole crucified-prostitutes-thing down, but I digress). Jesus does get a mention in Gaiman's American Gods, by the way, although some people have commented that his importance was rather underplayed. Masterson certainly does not shy away from the subject — but maybe it just needs a dedicated book to do it justice. The field of fiction concerned with Millennial fever, of which The Last Days is most definitely an important entry, has been more concentrated in movies it seems, mostly a disappointing batch.

One thing the novel does share with modern crime fiction is the jaundiced attitudes of pretty much everybody in evidence, in relation to that brutality I mentioned. There is almost a constant implementation and acceptance of casual and studied atrocity, to my mind one of the most important themes in contemporary fiction. This is all interesting and well-handled, but I can't help thinking there may be a bit too much of it. If Joe has been around for 2000 years, survived plagues and inquisitions, then it is perhaps understandable in his case, Son of God or not. For others, there is the whole modern environment of degradation, drug-use (lots of drugs herein) and the numbing power of advertising. I can't help but thinking, again in hindsight, that a bit more humanity would have highlighted the attitude better. (It certainly rescues the work from being targetted to young adults, the fate of many a horror release these days.) The whole farce thing wasn't completely successful for me either, but I can't complain about the author's attempt to tie everything together and extend it to logical extremes. I nonetheless couldn't help wondering if there wasn't a simpler way.

Regardless of the nitpicking, The Last Days is definitely something to track down and experience. I'm not aware of any subsequent editions after the 1998 original, but I was able to buy it new very recently (as a free plug, I've noticed Gleebooks seems to have a copy). Picador have given it a very handsome cover, and the work put into the writing of it is more than impressive. Is it a blasphemous book? I think most Christians would treat it like that, though those that have come across it have very wisely not launched their own ad campaign by trying to get it banned. But it is not an easy blasphemy, by any means. Perhaps you should puzzle it out for yourself.


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