Fact/Fiction: The beautifully blurry line – in writing, life, and religion


Jefferson Bass: Jon Jefferson (left) and Dr. Bill Bass at the gate of the Body Farm. Photo by Erik Bledsoe

Guest Blogger: Jon Jefferson, the “writer” half of Jefferson Bass

Medieval mystery meets modern murder in Jefferson Bass’s latest Body Farm thriller



Writing THE INQUISITOR’S KEY– a crime novel set in France – required a research trip to Avignon, a walled city in Provence, nestled in a bend of the Rhone River. The task loomed, daunting, even overwhelming – all those wines! all that cheese! – but someone had to do it, right? So in May 2011, I dusted off my passport, packed my French phrase book (“La toilette?”), and headed off for a grueling week. Seriously, folks: authentic forensic detail and meticulous research are trademarks of the Body Farm novels, so I had to go. Really I did.

The prelude to a week in Avignon was a day in Turin, Italy, home to the famous Shroud of Turin—a 14-foot-long strip of linen that’s revered by millions as the burial cloth of Jesus. The Shroud bears the full-length image of a man’s body, front and back, in a faint reddish-brown hue. The image includes what appear to be bloody wounds in the wrists, feet, and one side, as well as other marks on the forehead, back, and legs – wounds and marks consistent with biblical accounts of Jesus’s scourging and crucifixion.

I didn’t actually expect to see the Shroud in Turin, mind you. Couldn’t: no one can until the year 2025, its next scheduled exhibition. But I needed to see Turin Cathedral and the chapel where the Shroud is housed – behind bulletproof glass and a black curtain –because one of the novel’s scenes is set there. In that scene our fictional heroes, forensic anthropologists Bill Brockton and Miranda Lovelady, are investigating a possible link between the Shroud and a mysterious set of bones – centuries old, but freshly unearthed – that have been found within the Palace of the Popes, the massive fortress where a series of French popes lived and reigned in the 1300s.

On the surface, it might seem foolish for me to devote a day – two days, if you factor in travel time – to the Shroud, a religious relic I couldn’t even see. But in a way, not seeing the Shroud was the point of the trip. (“Huh?” you might well be asking…) Let me explain. In the novel, Dr. Brockton is so excited about the possible link he’s discovered that – like me – he impulsively dashes across the Alps from Avignon to Turin, certain that he’ll be able to talk his way behind the black curtain, examine the Shroud, and compare it to the ancient skeleton he’s found. (Guess where Brockton gets his impulsiveness?)

Turin Cathedral surprised me. I thought the home of Christianity’s most famous relic would be immense and opulent, but I thought wrong. On the outside, Turin Cathedral looked small and drab; on the inside, it was spare, practically austere. The modest, whitewashed nave was nearly deserted. At a little side chapel, a few elderly pilgrims knelt and prayed at a rail in front of the glassed-in, curtained-off Shroud. In a back corner of the church, an old woman sold souvenirs – charms and bookmarks and postcards and books – from a tiny gift shop (or, rather, a gift counter, about the size of my kitchen counter). There were no security guards, and I couldn’t help wondering how hard it could be to stage a heist.

But what I wondered about more was the image on the Shroud. Ever since the cloth was first displayed, in the 1350s, controversy has raged: Is the Shroud genuine, the faint image of the crucified Christ? Or is it a hoax from the Middle Ages – the heyday, mind you, of fake relics – created (as one bishop at the time wrote to warn the pope) by a clever artist for the cynical purpose of attracting pilgrims to Lirey, France, the town where it was first displayed?

For more than a century now – ever since a photographic negative of the Shroud created a more haunting, ghostly image – scientists have weighed in, time and again, on both sides of the authenticity question. One of these scientists – a friend of mine, a former medical illustrator who’s now a forensic anthropologist – has published a journal article explaining (and demonstrating) a simple “dust transfer” technique that a medieval artist could have used to create the faint, haunting image on linen. But did a medieval artist use that technique to create the image?

I put it to you, gentle readers: What do YOU think about the Shroud? Is it a clever hoax from the Middle Ages, or a genuine and holy relic, 2,000 years old? Please weigh in with your comments below – and please read THE INQUISITOR’S KEY to see how we answer the question, as we weave together science and religion, medieval mystery and modern murder…

Jon Jefferson – writer and documentary filmmaker – is the “writer” half behind the bestselling series of Body Farm novels. Together he and renowned forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, founder of the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee, are the bestselling author, “Jefferson Bass.” Their latest forensic thriller, THE INQUISITOR’S KEY, will be released by HarperCollins/William Morrow on May 8, 2012. Also, available on April 24, 2012 for 99 cents – an art-&-intrigue e-story prequel to THE INQUISITOR’S KEY entitled Madonna & Corpse.

For more on Jefferson Bass, LIKE them on Facebook, visit their blog, or follow them on Twitter.

Check out Jenn’s Bookshelves’ review of THE INQISITOR’S KEY here!

For a full list of posts celebrating the release of this novel, check out the list here.







  1. Pingback: Review: The Inquisitor’s Key by Jefferson Bass | Jenn's Bookshelves

  2. Thanks for giving me the chance to tell a bit of the story behind the story. And thanks for all you do to connect writers with readers — keep up the great work! Cheers, Jon Jefferson

  3. Pingback: Review: The Inquisitor's Key by Jefferson Bass | Jenn's Bookshelves | The Forensics Study Site

  4. I’m an absolute believer in boots-on-the-ground research to make fiction realistic, and have travelled several times for just that purpose myself. And you had to eat while you were there, right? A little wine and cheese seem like just the right reward for all that hard work!

    That was a very interesting article; thank you for including it. I admit that the scientist in me says that there’s a logical explanation for it, as Drs. Craig and Bresee outline. Knowing that the technique and materials were available to artists back then, it’s a very plausible explanation. The fact that the cloth radiocarbon dates to the 13th or 14th century only supports that hypothesis.

    Looking forward to hearing what Dr. Brockton and Miranda make of it!

  5. Pingback: Did a medieval artist use Emily Craig’s technique to create the Shroud’s image? « Shroud of Turin Blog

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