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Tom Shaman
(creator: Jon Trace)

Tom Shaman (Father Thomas Antony Shaman) abandons the priesthood at the start of the first book, after confronting three potential rapists whom he had seen attacking a young woman in a Los Angeles street - and killing two of them in the struggle. He does not lose his faith but feels that his “murderer's hands .... could never hold the host again. Never baptise. Never marry. Never consecrate. Oddly, he feels both he and God are happy with this decision."

He is 6'3" tall, with "cloudy eyes and thick dark hair " and weighs “90 kg, perhaps a bit more – he's a big guy. Lean, you know, muscular. Somewhere in his early thirties." His physical strength (he is "as big as an oak and throws a punch that could derail a freight train"), his theological background and his church contacts all prove useful in the adventures that are to come. But you wouldn't exactly call him holy.

Jon Trace (real name: Michael/Mike Morley, 1957- ) was born in Manchester. Orphaned at birth, he was brought up in care, foster and adoption homes. He became an ITV journalist, presenter and producer, then senior executive director for Endemol TV, and is now executive vice president and chief creative officer, international production, for Sony Pictures Television International.

He produced a number of award-winning documentaries, including Murder in Mind about Dennis Nilsen, and scripted the interactive mystery game, Monkeys Skulls & Crosses. Spider (2008) was his first novel and was written under his real name. The Venice Conspiracy (reviewed below) was the first book for which he used the pseudonym Jon Trace. He is married with three sons and lives in Derbyshire.

The Venice Conspiracy (2010)
The Venice Conspiracy describes how ex-priest Tom Shaman sets off on a last-minute trip to Venice, but gets much more than the break he'd been hoping for. A brutal killer is on the loose and Tom finds himself catapulted into a series of extraordinary ritualistic killings (every victim has his/her liver cut out, and in one case nailed up on the Salute high altar). Enlisted by the Italian police, Tom teams up with investigator Valentina Morassi to dig deep into the city's darkest history, stretching from an ancient civilisation in 660 BC and the sexual decadence of 18th century Italy to the gritty underworld of modern-day Venice. As Valentina and Tom trace the killings through the centuries, they uncover a deadly secret concerning a priceless Etruscan mosaic known as The Gates of Hell.

It is Tom who is able to explain the Satanic significance of a victim's 666 wounds. And it is he who realises there is a connection with a prisoner he had known who is about to be executed in a Los Angeles gaol. Meanwhile he discovers for the first time what it is like to make love to a woman - and this (like the scenes of extreme violence) is graphically described.

There are frequent flashbacks both to ancient Etruria in 660 BC and to 18th century Venice, but it is the modern story involving Valentina and Tom that is much the most gripping, and it gets increasingly annoying when we keep leaving it for all these glimpses into an unlikely past. Admittedly everything is connected to the Gates of Hell mosaic, but it is difficult to justify such exceptionally violent and unpleasant passages as: “He pushes the teenager's head over the edge. Makes a dangle in that supernatural space between the sky and earth. Limbo. The place where he'll steal her soul. Only when she stares directly up but does he begin. An incision by the left ear. A long red slice beneath her cute little chin. A popping noise in her slender throat. The gag in her mouth slackens. A phantom of red. Then a splutter. The greedy black water drinks until she is bled dry. Indifferently, he drops her skull with a dull thump on the wooden decking, then unwraps the tools he needs to complete his bloody ritual. He kneels and prays. Doctrine handed down across the centuries. The verbal chain of unbreakable belief."

That is present-day Venice, but the past is no better. In 66 BC, Larth, the executioner, has to deal with a petty thief who “is stripped bare. He's an old man known as Telthius. When he was a child, Larth was often left with him and his wife while his own mother and father worked. He thinks briefly of that now, and how he used to playfully pull the old man's long beard and hair. The memory stops as soon as his assistants have finished lifting Telthius onto the platform and stringing him up. Back to the wall, he hangs from ropes around his wrists, his face already distorted with pain. Larth feels his anger rise. The thief's suffering ignites something inside him. Something exciting. Something that makes him feel more powerful and complete than at any other time in his life. Telthius disgusts him. His long beard is white. White hair sprouts from his nose, his ears, his armpits and even around his manhood. White is revolting. The old man is revolting .... Larth puts out his hand and takes a flaming rag torch from one of his aides. 'Open your eyes! Open them, Thief!' The kindly elder who once rocked him to sleep in the sticky afternoon heat squints towards his former charge. Larth holds the flaming torch between the old man's legs and smiles. The white pubic hair catches fire. Larth laughs. A throaty roar that rolls across the gardens. Thelius jerks with pain. The torturer's assistants can't bear to look. The air smells of burning skin and hair .... He rolls the flaming torch over the hair that covers the old man's chest and arms till he screams in agony. The torturer is careful not to go too far. He lets the fire burn only briefly. Enough to hurt, not to kill. There is no fun in setting fire to a dead body. Well, not nearly as much as setting fire to a living one."18th Century Venice is equally bloodthirsty: a victim, Amun, has his penis cut off then “Louisa ties another tourniquet. Smiles as she leaves him dangling, dripping blood. The other acolytes undo his gag and force the end of his severed penis into his mouth before re-gagging him. Swallow or choke. The choice is his. Ave Satanus. The congregation dip their fingers in bowls of his blood, anoint themselves and smear it over each other. Dominus Satanus. Frenzied intercourse begins. A demonic race to climax before the sacrifice dies."

Then the high priest, His Diabolic Holiness, “holds the remaining stump of penis and hacks it off. He shifts his grip on the knife. Holding the blade skywards, he reaches between the dead man's buttocks towards the end of his spine . Slowly he drags the blade in a vicious U-cut all the way to Amun's scrotum. Ave Satanus. Two acolytes advance with identical ceremonial knives. Ave Satanus . The knives are passed. The wounds counted out. Six hundred and sixty-six in total." Then of course they still have to cut out his liver: “A whoosh of gas comes with a deep cut high into the right side of the abdomen. More intestines snake through the wound."

Much of this seems gratuitously nasty. As the Satanic horrors pile on, even one of the characters can't help thinking, "What nonsense is this?" How right he is! It is so over the top that you can't really accept that there are only “six days before they (the Satanists) make their last and most significant sacrifice then the gates of hell will be unblocked and will be powerless against the evil that is let loose." So, as you cannot believe a word of it, the author never achieves the grand dramatic climax that he must have hoped for, and this is further weakened by all the frantic intercutting from one period to another, and by the author's unintentionally comic staccato style: “The unseen club comes down again. Connects perfectly. Tomasso's skull cracks open. Pain shoots through his eyes and temples. Blackness rolls in. Face down in the stinking earth, he prays Tanina is already far away. He doesn't feel the next blow. Or the one after that. He's dead."

The author admits that “some Etruscan details are made up". There seems little danger that anyone could take any of it too seriously.

The Rome Prophecy (2011)
The Rome Prophecy tells how ex-priest Tom Shannon, now aged 33, teams up with the Rome Carabinieri's newest captain, Valentina Morassi, whom he had met in Venice in the previous book, to unravel the mystery of a young woman, Anna, who has been found covered in blood and claiming to be an ancient prophet on the run from a mighty power. It turns out that she suffered from dissociative identity disorder and had various alter egos, including a Venetian noblewoman, a Sabine woman, and a little girl aged eight. Even Tom confesses, “I'm out of my depth here. I understand demonic possession, but not this dissociative identity disorder business. It's like Anna has an out-of-control personality machine inside her that can't stop manufacturing new identities." Valentina tells him it is probably due to childhood abuse. Meanwhile, there is “murder, ritual dismemberment, .... and more pagan cults, myths and legends then Toilkein ever dreamt of." And there are even eunuchs thrown in too!

But, as the story develops, it turns out to be a real improvement on the previous book: there is a much more coherent plot and, after a slightly confusing start in which we annoyingly keep cutting away to an unexplained woman, Cassandra, who describes her own death in years past, we can even begin to believe in the story, and feel really involved as when Valentina stands up to her bullying anti-feminist commanding officer when he tells her, “If the top brass weren't under political pressure to have some skirts wearing senior rank, you'd be out during traffic duty". She secretly records what he says then tells him “I don't think that's the most damning part of the recording, sir, but I'm sure that even that bit is sufficient to end the career of a misogynist bully like you .... Unless you want a copy of this recording to be the center point not only of your own disciplinary enquiry but also of news reports from one end of Italy to the other, from this moment onwards you will afford me your total trust and support and allow me to do my job." You can't help cheering her on.

Tom himself is well aware that he was once a priest but his conscience is usually untroubled, and, for no obvious reason, he even takes on a local thug in a kickboxing match and (of course) defeats him. As he admits, “He must have been crazy to have talked himself into this." And he does not seem to have any priestly hang-ups when he makes love to Valentina who “stretches like a cat as kisses trickle across her hips, then along her bikini line, and finally gather between her legs. His hands cup her buttocks and his tongue snakes deep inside her. She clings to him. Digs her nails into his vast back and hold on like she's going to fall off a cliff. And in a way she does. A vast tumble into oblivion, her head spinning and her heart pounding while a river of pent-up emotion breaks wonderfully free." She asks him for help on the case as it “obviously has some confusing religious dimensions. It would be good to have you around to make sense of them."

Despite getting officially suspended from her detective duties, Valentina is determined to help poor Anna, and the story builds up to a genuinely exciting climax in which Tom gets more and more involved: “If it's really necessary," he says, "then I'm prepared to take the life of a bad person in order to save that of a good one"- especially when Valentina's own life is threatened.

There are underground tunnels, lethal booby-traps, man-eating lions and numerous other dangers to overcome before we reached the happy ending. But it's not entirely happy as it ends with the words, Tom "had never loved anyone as much as he loves Valentina. He just hopes she understands why, when their holidays over, he is going to have to move on." But why has he got to move on? Just to provide the author with a different setting for another book?

The Rev Faith Morgan

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