As it happens, the afternoon after I finished Christopher Buckley’s The Relic Master I stumbled across Blazing Saddles on TV. While watching it for the umpteenth time, I had an epiphany about comedy and violence.
Trust me, these two things go together.
The Relic Master is the story of Dismas, who works for a pair of high placed Germans in the 16th century, scouring the world for holy relics. These baubles – from a piece of a saint’s fingernail to the boat of St. Peter – are supposed to cure the sick and help the sinful atone for being, well, basically for being human.
Dismas tries to scam one of his patrons (with an assist from Albrecht Durer – yes, that one), but gets caught. As penance, he (and Durer) are tasked with stealing another holy relic, the Shroud of Chambery – better known today as the Shroud of Turin. A road trip ensues, terminating in an extended stay in Chambery that, let’s just say, doesn’t go as planned.
It’s a heist story, and a fairly amusing one. It’s never quite as funny as it wants to be (aside from a version of the Last Supper that’s beautifully farcical), but it’s generally fun, quick moving, and interesting. Dismas (who may or may not have been a real person) lived in interesting times (see Luther, Martin – relics play large role in the indulgence trade) and intersects with several interesting historical figures, none of which actually changes history as we know it.
Where does Blazing Saddles come in? Early in the movie there’s a scene where the railroad company sends a gang of thugs to Rock Ridge to scare off the population. Violence, rape, and murder are all on offer and, if presented in any way realistically, would be horrible. But it’s not. There’s no blood, nobody dies, and the attack ends with a nearly pantomime attack on a little old lady who still manages to crack a one liner. A subsequent church bombing is, literally, all smoke.
Why is that important? Because it means the movie never loses sight of what it is, of its tone. It’s a comedy first and foremost. One that’s got something to say about serious stuff, but in terms of action, it’s profoundly silly.
The Relic Master, by contrast, wants to be light and funny most of the time, but twice it dips into serious violence that just ruins the mood. The first is when Dismas’s initial caper goes bad and he’s tortured by his wronged patron. This is all off stage, thankfully, although that results in a heretofore unutilized POV shift. Torture is rarely funny (Vogon poetry should be involved), and the kind the Dismas experiences certainly isn’t It leaves him physically altered (a plot point of which Buckley makes good use later), although doesn’t appear to do that much emotional damage. Regardless, it’s a downer.
The second is near the end, when the other scheme starts to go to shit, with bloody consequences. At one point Dismas references eleven dead bodies in a room. And someone gets their throat cut on stage. None of this is particularly necessary and, again, it’s a real downer. There’s something to be said for dark comedy (think Tarrantino), but that doesn’t seem to be what The Relic Master is going for the other 85% of the time.
The sudden shifts in tone keep The Relic Master from being a completely satisfying read. Whether that’s an outgrowth of making Dismas a former mercenary, and thus possessed of certain skills, I don’t know. Protagonists of capers often work better if they’re talkers, not fighter. While Dismas is clever in his own right, he does fall back on old habits.
Still, a mostly fun, quick read, set during an interesting time. You could do worse.