Glenn Kleier’s new novel, The Knowledge of Good and Evil, may confound a few readers. On the one hand, it is a novel of ideas, some rather esoteric. On the other hand, it is an action-based thriller. How a reader reacts may depend on which approach they prefer.
The book is Kleier’s first since the top-notch The Last Day, published in 1997. Like its predecessor, The Knowledge of Good and Evil is framed around religious issues. Whereas The Last Day was a millennium-timed thriller looking at the end of the world, the focus here is on the end of life. More specifically, it centers around the existence of an afterlife and delves into core philosophical and theological issues, such as heaven and hell and good and evil.
Embarked on this intellectual exploration is Ian Baringer, a former Roman Catholic priest long troubled by the riddle of how God can allow evil in the world. Baringer also carries the psychological damage of losing both his parents, who gave their lives to save his in a tragic accident. Believing that Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton discovered a “backdoor to the Afterlife” just before his death, Baringer undergoes experimental procedures to induce near death experiences in the hopes of discovering and exploring the afterlife.
As seems de rigueur with religious/theological thrillers, there is an organization that believes Baringer’s experiments threaten the tenets of the church. Here, it is a sect formed in medieval times, Ordo Arma Christi (“The Order of the Weapon of Christ”). Highly reminiscent of but perhaps more ruthless than the Opus Dei villain in The Da Vinci Code, the sect’s members chase Baringer and his girlfriend around the world as Baringer seeks his answers and a long-missing manuscript of Merton’s he believes contains the secrets not only to the afterlife but issues of good and evil.
Yet just as the book is deep on ideas, it engages heavily in thriller motifs. Plenty of hair-raising escapes and cliffhanger chapter endings keep the story moving but perhaps too fast and with too many close calls. The action elements of the story seem at times in odd contrast to the extensively researched ideas it explores. It isn’t often that you find a thriller that explores the views of medieval and Renaissance artists on heaven and hell and contains a bibliography of works consulted in writing the book.
For people like me who prefer the ideas over action, the balance too often tips the wrong way and there’s a few too many last minute escapes from the clutches of Ordo Arma Christi. The organization’s minions include one who speaks like a Dracula imitation with words like “vhat,” “ve,” “vher,” and “vhy,” and we get heavy British and Irish accents, among others, several places in the story. The book may find more resonance among those who like a heavier dose of or adore the action novel. Regardless, Kleier has once again released a thought-provoking work, too often a rarity in today’s market.
All men know well the road to hell, none the way out.
Glenn Kleier, The Knowledge of Good and Evil