The world around us contains more substance than is registered by our senses. The intangible spiritual realm is present and powerful. It teems with life … and with death. Christians know this better than most, and scriptural passages such as Ephesians 6 exhort us to never forget it.
So when the cosmic powers of this present darkness hatch diabolical plots, who on earth’s got humanity’s back? Who’ll stand up to Satan’s schemes? In evangelical fiction — as exemplified by the inimitable Frank Peretti — the spiritual SWAT teams tend to be headed by small-town pastors or recovering cynics who collaborate with martially-adept angels. In such stories, prayer is portrayed as the ultimate weapon, and the protagonist’s relationship with God becomes the primary determinant of his or her spiritual strength.
In Catholic fiction, things work a little differently. Enter Peter Crossman, modern-day Knight Templar and protag of James D. Macdonald’s The Apocalypse Door. This novel — along with several short stories coauthored by Macdonald and wife Debra Doyle and collected in The Confessions of Peter Crossman — is a cross between the James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Brother Cadfael franchises, set in the hardboiled detective genre, and seasoned with dashes of Hellboy and Constantine.
Who said it’s possible to have too much of a good thing?
As one of only thirty-three warrior-priests of the Inner Temple — that elite covey of Templar Knights unknown to even their secret-society compatriots — Peter Crossman is tasked with protecting holy places, the travelers therein, and artifacts of supernatural significance. To carry out this mandate he’s equipped with considerable resources, but none so effective as himself. Macdonald brings his extensive military experience to bear upon the verisimilitude of his plot, no hurdle of which is too-easily cleared. You will believe that Peter Crossman deserves the title with which he’s been endowed. You will believe it even when, by the end of the story, he slumps before you shaken, battered, fatigued, and desperate.
The breathless action begins in Newark, New Jersey, where Crossman’s been charged with infiltrating a suspicious warehouse by his superiors in Chatillon, France. Sounds mundane, you say? Not with the way Macdonald writes. The man is a magnificent wordsmith — his descriptions concise and punchy yet precisely evocative, his action scenes blocked and paced with expert care and ferocious energy, his dialog dancing with deft one-liners. Of course, the plot itself doesn’t depend on stylistic flourishes: its stakes swiftly swell to cataclysmic proportions, entangling our heroes in a labyrinthine conspiracy to fast-track the End of the Age.
Let me just get this out in the open: I loved this book. I could read it all day, every day. It’s immensely entertaining. From Crossman’s contraction-laced slang supposedly translated from the Latin, to his snappy banter with his assassin-nun comrade — Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares (!) — the Rule of Cool is adhered to hard. And yet behind the novel’s escapism there lurks a spiritual sobriety that sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill urban fantasy. Only in a Peter Crossman novel could you read a sentence that said “I [sprinted across the ground] like lust through a teenaged heart” and not bust out laughing.
You see, Crossman is an actual priest. As in: he’s celibate, he gives and receives confession, and he administers absolution to his enemies after shooting them. This is not portrayed ironically. Twin epigraphs open the novel: the Catholic Act of Contrition and John 8:44. And throughout the duration of the story that follows, sin is presented as a serious problem. It’s real, pervasive, and dangerous. It can’t be ignored. It must be dealt with, confronted.
Of course, since this is Catholic fiction, the in-world means for confronting sin seem rote and disconnected to this Reformed reviewer. Crossman must always remain conscious of his state of grace, lest he perish with unconfessed sin and let slip his salvation. When opposed by demonic forces, he relies on the power invested in objects such as crucifixes and holy water instead of going directly to the Source of that power through prayer. This formulaic approach leaves little room for an exploration of Crossman’s actual relationship with his God.
His relationship with sin, however, gets a more thorough examination. The novel’s numbered chapters alternate with flashbacks chronicling Crossman’s dark past as a CIA operative in South America — an account which predates and sets up his conversion to the faith. Macdonald does something thematically gutsy with this account — something that may offend the sensibilities of those unconvinced that God works through all things for the good of those He’s called according to His purpose — but something that, in retrospect, I respect a lot. It demonstrates a level of confidence in the reader rarely equalled, in my opinion, by evangelical authors.
The Apocalypse Door flings open a rousing-yet-religiously-grounded entryway to the spiritual-thriller subgenre. If you love the idea of secret-agent priests and action-girl nuns battling Peretti-esque perils while respecting ecclesiastical dictates, then this is a knob you need to turn.