Top Ten Favorite Religious Thrillers
What is a religious thriller—really?
Are they the ones with edge-of-your-seat, life-and-death conspiracy plots? Or are they the ones involving secret religious organizations that have vast influence for evil? What about cults, devil worshippers, modern people practicing ancient rituals? Do we throw in fringe groups with followers—the current Charlie Manson types? How about murderous plots at the highest levels in the Vatican?
For me, a great religious thriller can be any—or even all—of the above. That’s why my list of all-time favorite religious thrillers includes some that never mention a church, a mosque, a synagogue, or even a member of the clergy. After all, religions don’t always need edifices. Sometimes they just need faces.
In NO particular order:
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
This classic, published in 1980, is set in an elaborate Italian abbey in 1327. The monastery has plenty of secret passageways and the monks there have even more secrets. When several of the Franciscans are accused—oh no!—of heresy, Brother William of Baskerville is sent to investigate. Heresy turns to murder, however, and a slew of mysterious deaths occur in short order. Brother William turns from inquisitor to investigator to penetrate the dark secrets and ugly side of monastic life in the middle ages. It’s deep, it’s dark, it’s dangerous.
Aztec by Gary Jennings
Also published in 1980, this 900-something-page saga is considered historical fiction, but I consider it much more a religious thriller. Told from the point of view of aged Mixtli-Dark Cloud, who is a captive of the Spaniards after the conquest of the Aztecs by Hernán Cortes, he is forced to recall for the Roman Catholic clergy the history of the Aztecs in salacious detail, which he does in sly and brilliant ways. While reliving for the priests the brutal Azteca religious ceremonies, which included ritual sacrifice to their gods, he cleverly reminds them of the brutal murders and plunder their Catholic conquistadors committed upon the hundreds of thousands of Aztec people in the name of Jesus.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Are you crazy? This novel is pure horror, not a religious thriller—right? Wrong. Published in 1967, this one has kept me awake for years. Not just from rereading it, which I have many times, but from the sheer brilliance of the plot and the terror of the possibilities. Rosemary, a stay-at-home wife (it’s 1967 after all), and her husband, Guy, an actor, move into a giant New York City apartment. They don’t have much money, but again, it’s 1967, so lavish apartments went for cheap back then. Rosemary wants to get pregnant and Guy is good with that—but he needs that big Broadway break first. After meeting his kooky next-door neighbors, he gets that break, and Rosemary becomes pregnant in short order. Spoiler alert!! Too bad the kooks are devil worshippers and Rosemary is pregnant with the son of Satan.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Often thought of as the religious thriller, Brown broke the mold in many ways by focusing less on character and more on the research and possibilities of what is not known. The intriguing theory that for 2000 years, the Catholic Church has been hiding the truth of the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus is at the heart of the mystery. Start with a murder in the Louvre, bring in symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu, the Templar Knights, the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei, and an albino monk and you have the formula for one of the biggest bestselling, ground-breaking religious thrillers ever.
The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry
Berry has this incredible way of making his characters come alive while investigating long-dead conspiracies. To me, it’s what makes him—and this novel—such great religious thriller reading. How can you not love a protagonist like Cotton Malone, a former top U.S. Justice Department operative-turned-antiquarian-book-dealer in Copenhagen? I mean, what a brilliant idea.
The story begins with a violent robbery of a former colleague, and Cotton is back to business (not antiquarian book business). The mystery and the thrill involve centuries-old mysteries of the Templar Knights, lost treasure, and, more importantly, lost secret knowledge. Then there are the zealots and the assassins, which all combine to make this one helluva religious thriller. Pun intended.
The Quest by Nelson DeMille
Back before the religious thriller became, well, a whole genre onto itself, Nelson DeMille penned The Quest, about the quest for—yes—the Holy Grail. But don’t go thinking he knocked off Dan Brown to do it. DeMille wrote this book back in 1975, years before The Da Vinci Code, and then rewrote and republished it 38 years later in 2013.
The master of cold war novels turned this one hot-blooded and steamy. DeMille said at the time, “In 2013, I rewrote The Quest and doubled its length, making it, I hope, a far better story than the original, without deviating from the elements that made the story so powerful and compelling when I first wrote it.” I didn’t read the earlier version, but the update is, well, thrilling.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
You know how they never make a movie that’s as good as the book? Sometime that’s so not true. The Exorcist, like Rosemary’s Baby, proved the exception to that truism. Published in 1971, the novel was so scary, so creepy, so out-and-out frightening, that it had the world afraid of: little girls, priests, outdoor stairs, Georgetown, windows, Ouija boards, and the dark. The movie simply reinforced those terrors.
Totally unique, written with literary skill, but appealing enough to capture pop culture—the novel’s fictitious mom is a famous actress who must turn to the church when her child becomes possessed—Blatty created a horrifically scary tale. Why do I consider it a religious thriller? How do you get any more religious or thrilling than the Devil vs. the Catholic Church?
The Face of God by Paul Badde
While technically not a thriller—it’s not even fiction!—Paul Badde, a bestselling author, historian, and Vatican correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt, spent years researching the mysterious cloth bearing the image of Jesus in Manopello, Italy, and it reads like a thriller.
I met Badde myself in Italy when I was researching that same icon for my novel The Sixth Station. That relic, il Volto Santo, a mysterious piece of silk bearing an image of the face of Jesus, resides in a monastery deep in the mountains of Abruzzo, Italy. Although the book is about his quest to find the truth, it reads like a thriller.
The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley
Published in 1952, it’s called a “nonfiction novel” because it is a historical retelling of events in seventeenth-century France. A group of Ursuline nuns there supposedly became possessed by demons after a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Urbain Grandier made a pact with the devil. It’s really more a story about sexually repressed nuns and religious fanaticism than demonic possession. But since back then, sex among the unmarried was as bad as devil worship? Burn ’em at the stake!
The book was made into a stage play and then a movie starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave in 1971, which I love, and a German opera, which I, thank God (again, pun intended), skipped.
The Bible by Moses (and 39 or so others)
Seriously, what other book has this many thrilling, scary, sometimes revolting edge-of-your-seat chapters? People speaking to God, God speaking to people, people doing insane things to please God, people getting severely punished for doing insane things that didn’t please God? Sex, murder, plagues, fleeing from oppressors, slavery, incest, and then there’s the Seven Seals and the Seven Plagues, which seem to be upon us even as we speak. Yikes. Talk about a thriller for the ages!