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Summer Books

Hunt for missing artwork connects
KGB, Vatican, Constantine and Sophia

By Lewis Perdue
Forge, hardcover, 319 pages, $24.95


“A work of fiction based on fact,” is how Lewis Perdue describes this novel in the author’s notes at the end of Daughter of God. He offers as evidence a personal experience while trying to track down some missing pieces of art.

That Hitler had “set up an organization called the Sonderauftrag Linz whose purpose was to loot the finest public and private collections of Europe,” is pretty common knowledge. It is while sleuthing for some of those stolen paintings that Perdue was introduced to an ex-Nazi now living in a fortified bunker of a dwelling in Munich. During the course of their rendezvous, Heinrich Heim showed Perdue an inventory and some photographs of paintings by one Frederick Stahl, Adolf Hitler’s favorite painter. The paintings had last been seen in Zurich before the war.

Perdue agreed to search for them until he met with such hostility, wrath and threats of violence that he abandoned the quest. “To this day,” he says, “I remain ignorant of where the Stahl paintings are and what’s more, I don’t think it would be healthy to know.”

No more than it was healthy for Seth and Zoe Ridgeway, ex-cop turned professor of philosophy and comparative religions and noted art historian respectively, to circumstantially be in possession of a certain Stahl painting in Perdue’s novel. Daughter of God is an ambitious mystery thriller that spans 1,700 years, two continents, the Council of Nicaea, World War II, the Holocaust and a deep religious secret.

The deep, dark secret and hence the title of the novel concerns the existence of a female messiah, Sophia, who was born during the reign of Constantine and was killed on his orders to assure that she would not cause further fissures in an already contentious, divided church. As Seth explained to Zoe, Constantine was the “first true master at shaping religion to help consolidate governmental power. He saw that this new religion wasn’t going away, and that over the previous three centuries it had been a destabilizing influence on the rule of the empire. ... He controlled the church for his own purposes and shaped theology for the sake of political expediency.” This, by the way, is true.

But back to the story. A painting by Stahl, now missing, was used to blackmail the Vatican into silence during World War II. At this point, both a secret section of the Roman curia and the KGB among who-knows-who-else are searching for the painting. According to the Vatican operative, the future of Christianity and the church as we know it depends on the return of the painting in order that it will never again see the light of day. The KGB is desperate for it for the same reasons that it was valuable to Nazi Germany. This piece of art somehow contains irrefutable evidence of the existence and truth of the Sophia, on which rests the balance of power in Christendom and the Western world.

Remember who I said had this painting?

I appreciate a good mystery, and this is one. But besides the story line, what captivated me was how all the religious and cultural history informed the narrative. What exasperated me, however, was an over-the-top quality to the action. It’s almost as if Perdue didn’t know when to leave well enough alone.

Of course, except for Seth and Zoe, readers can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys any more reliably than the Ridgeways could. But to complicate matters, it seems as if Perdue gratuitously mixes them up on us. Furthermore, fans of mystery and detective fiction are used to the improbable, deus ex machina-style escapes, superhuman wisdom and mental gyrations our heroes bring to bear on their predicaments. Heck, the genre depends on them. But from my easy chair (the edge of it, to be sure) I wanted to shout into the pages to Perdue to take a breath. Couldn’t Seth (and we) have done with one or two fewer harrowing escapades?

Now that I have vented about that, let me hasten to add that I did (really) like the book. To use a cliché, it’s a page-turner as well as just plain instructive in one of the most delightful ways to learn -- “fiction based on fact.”

As for the Sophia story, in the author’s notes Perdue allowed, “I’m fairly sure that the parts about Sophia as a flesh and blood woman are my imagination.” (Fairly sure?) But he continues, “Sophia has a place in history, but where is still to be determined.” In the meantime, Lewis Perdue has made one up for her.

Judith Bromberg is a regular reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000