This particular “Story Behind the Story” essay has a back-story: The new crime thriller The Inquisitor’s Key is by New York Times bestselling author Jefferson Bass ... but the fact is, there’s no such person as Jefferson Bass. Jefferson Bass is a pen name for journalist-documentary filmmaker Jon Jefferson and forensic anthropologist-god Bill Bass, founder of the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee. Ten years ago, Jefferson and Bass collaborated on Death’s Acre, a non-fiction memoir (jointly bylined) about Bass’ career and murder cases--and about his macabre research facility, which performs groundbreaking studies of postmortem human decomposition and time-since-death determinations. Buoyed by the success of that book, Jefferson persuaded Bass to let him pitch a series of crime novels based on the Body Farm (featuring a Bill Bass doppelgänger named Bill Brockton). HarperCollins imprint William Morrow snapped up the proposal, but Morrow’s editor asked Jefferson and Bass to come up with a pen name ... and in the spirit of equal partnership, “Jefferson Bass” was born. The division of labor is simple: Bass provides the forensic brains and bona fides (bone fides?) and Jefferson provides the words. So this “Story Behind the Story” comes from Jon Jefferson’s keyboard ...
* * *The year was 1998. I’d recently started writing and producing documentaries for A&E, the Arts & Entertainment Network, and I’d just been handed the best of projects and the worst of projects: a two-hour A&E special about the Vatican. Cool subject; gorgeous footage; serious script problems. Three other writer-producers had already come to grief on the shoals of the project; it was a high-budget, high-stakes, and high-likelihood-of-failure gig. The production company I was working for had somehow wrangled a backstage pass to shoot in the Vatican, but the shoot had to be done quickly. There was no shooting script; there wasn’t even an outline for the show. The initial crew was sent to Rome with instructions to “shoot everything.” The only plan was to figure out a plan later, once the footage was in hand
Some months (and some writer-producers) later, the footage and the project got dumped on me ... er, I mean, entrusted to me. After much research (and much head-scratching), I came up with a script called “The Vatican Revealed,” a title vague enough to allow us to cherry-pick--I mean, “reveal”--choice morsels of history, art, architecture, and even modern Machiavellian maneuvering (Pope John Paul II’s part in toppling the Communist empire--a topic on which I got to interview legendary journalist Carl Bernstein!)
But the footage we had--somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 hours of footage--didn’t add up to the script I’d written, so we begged for (and got) Vatican permission to go back briefly. We shot in catacombs. Roman ruins. The Vatican Library. The Vatican Museums. On the way home, almost as an afterthought, we made a quick side trip to a small city in southern France--Avignon--which I’d never heard of before this project. During the 1200s and early 1300s, I learned, Italy was ravaged by a deadly feud between two factions, the Guelphs and Gibellines (imagine the Hatfields and the McCoys wearing tights, speaking Italian, and wielding daggers rather than shotguns). So when a French pope was elected in 1305, the papacy soon relocated to a town in Provence called Avignon
When Pope Clement V arrived in 1309, he commandeered the local bishop’s palace--cramped, makeshift quarters in which Clement and two successors made do, until 1334. In that year--while still claiming that the papacy was in Avignon only “temporarily”--Pope Benedict XII began work on more spacious quarters. Considerably more spacious quarters: the “Palace of the Popes” was (and remains) the biggest Gothic palace in Europe. And Avignon itself grew by leaps and bounds, its population soaring from about 3,000 in 1309 to some 50,000 in 1348
(Left) Front image of the mysterious Shroud of Turin
I arrived in Avignon 650 years after that--in 1998, with a camera crew in tow--and I was instantly blown away. The papal palace was misnamed: that sucker was a Mighty Fortress, protected by massive towers and soaring battlements, complete with arrow-slits for archers, and openings through which boiling oil could be poured down on sinful attackers. The papal court wasn’t just formidable, I learned, but lavish, too, with an annual budget 10 times the size of the royal court of France
For a small-town boy from Alabama (i.e., moi), Avignon was eye-popping. After two days of shooting--in the immense audience hall, the cathedral-sized “private” chapel, the fresco-filled walls, the heavily fortified treasure chamber--I left Avignon bewitched and bedazzled. I’ve got to come back someday, I thought. I’m not finished here yet; don’t wanna be, anyhow.
Thirteen years later, in the spring of 2011, I returned. No camera crew this time; just my lovely, smart wife ... and an idea for a crime novel that would link the majesty, mystery, and power plays of medieval Avignon with modern-day murder and forensic science. What if a mysterious set of bones was found in the Palace of the Popes, I thought, hidden there in the 14th century--bones that could be the archaeological find of the millennium? Who might be dying--or, rather, who might be killing--to lay their hands on those bones? As the idea took root and grew, and as I delved into the 14th-century back-story that I wanted to link to a modern murder in Avignon, I also realized that the 14th century spawned one of the greatest mysteries of all time: the mystery of the Shroud of Turin, the world’s most famous religious relic, revered by millions as the burial shroud of Jesus. The Shroud made its first indisputable appearance in the 1350s in the small town of Lirey, France ... not too far from Avignon! Might there be a connection between this haunting relic and the powerful papal court, which had become a magnet for artists from throughout Europe? The possibilities were fascinating ..
One lovely lesson I learned from writing The Inquisitor’s Key is to pay attention to that subtle but insistent tug on the sleeve of my mind--my subconscious mind, for years, and then finally (thank goodness) my conscious mind. Actually, by the end, it wasn’t a subtle tug on my sleeve; it was more like a two-by-four whopping me upside the head. I saw stars. And I remain dazzled.