As you may recall, Daniel Webster won his debate with the Devil after a long, arduously cunning verbal struggle. Norman Mailer's attempt to repeat the Webster victory, holding forth for the Existential outlook, would have managed only a draw—had I finished the parody I started in college and abandoned when understanding I'd actually have to study Existentialism not merely indulge in its chemically induced illusory semblance in order to give Mailer a fighting chance. I was "chops challenged," as I learned to euphemize much later in politically correct vernacular.
Comes now something a tad more practical and, probably because of its practicality, vastly more interesting: A debate between a snarky atheist midwife named Tessa Testerman and a rather wimpy, guilt-ridden archangel named Maritenael, a name Testerman can't pronounce, so changes to "Martin."
“No...Absolutely, no,” Testerman instantly responds, interrupting Martin's description of a sacred relic he's ordered her to recover. The archangel had appeared to her after an exhausting delivery. She assumes she's hallucinating.
The angel stops speaking. He “resembled a generic Christmas tree ornament, with a white robe, a gold sash, and angular features...trim black hair and black eyes so focused they looked fierce.
"She tilted up her chin to glare at him. 'You can leave me alone,’ she says. ‘I’m not retrieving this relic. We’re done.'”
He says, “This is the second time you’ve refused.”
“'Then that makes both of us who can count to two.' Tessa folded her arms. 'I said no the first time, and I meant it.'”
She accuses him of being a hallucination, and tells him to vanish, "or whatever it is hallucinations do.”
Martin insists he's real.
"Tessa turned, hands on her hips. 'You’ve shown up twice, both times after long births, both times at three o’clock in the morning. You didn’t turn up at an hour when I’m not exhausted and high on someone else’s birth endorphins. If that’s not a hallucination, then what is?'”
Martin admits she's more vulnerable after a delivery, "more willing to accept the impossible."
“'And that’s how I know you’re a hallucination,' she retorts. 'Now if you don’t mind, I need to drive home without trees dancing alongside the road. Excuse me, please.'”
He blocks the doorway. Asks how he can prove to her he's an angel.
"She huffed. 'If you’re really an angel, tell me the time of the next birth I’ll attend, plus the gender of the baby.'”
He does so, with precise details including an odd spelling of the baby's name. Four days later Noe (pronounced Noah) is born as predicted, and Martin reappears. Testerman acknowledges his angelhood, but she's no pushover for harps and halos. Before allowng any game to be afoot, the midwife has a demand of her own. It seems a bill is pending before the state legislature that would allow insurance companies to deny paying for birthing procedures not conducted in licensed hospitals. Its passage would put midwives out of business. Therefore, Testerman proposes, if Martin would use his angelic powers to help defeat the bill, she would try to find and recover the sacred relic.
Were Dan Brown the author of Relic of His Heart, guaranteed, of course, to be another vehicle for Tom Hanks (this time presumably in midwife drag), Testerman would abandon her husband and five sons to hit the global airways gallivanting from one clue to the next, dodging demons at every step, until at last she'd have the relic in hand and could return home to her midwifery, safe from the restrictive legislation miraculously defeated despite the powerful hospital lobby, and into the forgiving arms of her loving, mother-knows-best family.
Fortunately, for me anyway, the author is Jane Lebak, whose lightly irreverent sense of humor and joie de vivre keep a potentially grim, implausible, horror-riven thriller sensibly grounded and morally sound yet irresistible. Not an easy thing to do with an archangel co-protagonist constantly bouncing back and forth in time who takes to heart quite literally the expression “God-fearing,” reluctant as he is to approach the Father directly for any reason, such as seeking permission to reveal his own name to Testerman.
Martin suffers celestial-grade guilt for having dropped the ball, so to speak, when, during his tenure as guardian angel of the Church of the Holy Cross in Barlassina, Italy, soldiers, enraged by an Italian partisan sniper’s shooting at them, burned the church to the ground and stole the relic, to boot. The angel had been off attending to some other, apparently less important duty, and blames himself for “losing” the church and the relic—a beautifully designed golden reliquary containing a microscopic piece of the heart of St. Peter of Verona taken from the tip of the assassin’s sword that martyred him. Martin also blames himself for, at the same time, not preventing a G.I.’s accidental fatal shooting of Testerman’s Great Aunt Alicia. The relic must be returned to the town to appease the two controlling, feuding families—the Monterosas and the DiOrios—so the church can be rebuilt.
Testerman is a DiOrio, which Martin counts on to spur her into hunting down the relic. Fortunately her husband, Gary, is a freelance writer enthralled by the situation, and researches that period for stories he sells to national publications. Hey, this would be the part for Tom Hanks, and he wouldn’t even have to wear a dress! The midwife’s relatives contribute letters from family in Italy to help round out the picture. One of Gary’s stories had the effect of kicking a hornet’s nest in Barlassina. Threatening letters arrive, but one tells him how carefully he’d balanced the story: You will be pleased to note that some of the smaller-minded among us actually sat down and counted the number of quotes you provided from the Monterosas versus the DiOrios, and they’re furious that you made it exactly even.
Gary tracks down those veterans still alive who’d been in the platoon blamed for burning the church, shooting Alicia, and stealing the relic. He gets the story and...no way will I reveal the secret of the missing relic! That’s your job. Do Tessa and Gary actually go to Barlassina? Of course they do, but why and when and what happens when they get there? Something else for you to wonder about. I won’t have the Monterosas and DiOrios sending me any hate mail, grazi!