Book Review: The Good Thief
by Barry Connolly
Debut author Barry Connolly has taken the brief Gospel mention of the “Good Thief,” fleshed it out with names from other first century sources (the Good Thief here is Dismas, and his bad, unrepentant counterpart is Gestas), and imagined the tangled life story that would bring these two into one last personal encounter with Jesus, while all three are hanging on crosses at Calvary waiting to die. It’s a poignant little scene in Luke, and Connolly has turned it into a winning, quietly wise historical novel.
We don’t know exactly where Luke gets the story, or why he chooses to include it in his account of Jesus’ death. Most likely it’s the prophet Isaiah who gives him the idea, in the verses where the death of the Messiah is prophesied. Isaiah tells us the Messiah will die among thieves but be buried among rich men, and maybe this gave New Testament writers the idea for both the two thieves and wealthy Joseph of Arimathea stepping forward to offer a tomb for Jesus’ body. More likely there was a symbolic motivation: in all four Gospels, the very presence of Jesus on Earth offers every single person he encounters a choice: you can keep on living the way you’ve been living, or you can see the Messiah physically present in your midst and take the opportunity to become better – to “be perfect,” as Jesus encourages his followers. The symbolism of having an unrepentant sinner on one side of the dying Jesus and a repentant one on the other was probably too good to resist.
Certainly in Dismas Connolly has given us a main character who is a far cry from perfect. He’s a willful, passionate young man prone to impulsive acts – but he’s not evil like his cousin Gestas, a hardened leader of bandits who’s being hunted by the Romans. While Dismas is away, a haughty Roman tribune named Palatina comes to the family’s house in search of Gestas and ends up savagely killing Dismas’ brother and sister. Dismas returns just in time to hear his brother gasp the name of the tribune, and from that moment the young man’s life is bent on revenge. That Dismas gives no more serious thought to his course of action than Palatina did to his crimes is one the many intriguing parallels Connolly has worked into his tale.
He’s also paid a refreshingly consistent attention to period detail and atmosphere. This is a religious novel that would work as historical fiction even without its religious themes (this is not entirely common in the sub-genre, where all too often writers vaguely invoke ‘ye olden times’ just long enough to let them get on with their sermonizing), and it’s everywhere aided by Connolly’s gift for quick, evocative description, like how he can suggest the hammering heat of the Judean midday with just a few words:
The sun continued its wide arc through the sky. Gestas estimated they had less than an hour before they caught sight of the approaching caravan. With almost no shade available, the sun continued to beat down, stirring up little ripples of heat that flickered and pooled on the distant desert flatlands.
The story takes many twists and turns on the way to its famous climax, and at many points along the way, Dismas is offered chances to relent in his pursuit of vengeance – no character offers more strongly than his betrothed Rebekah, a character Connolly dramatizes quite well and into whose mouth he puts most of the novel’s words of wisdom, as when she asks the question that’s on every reader’s mind, “What’s wrong with you, Dismas?”:
“Is it not enough that in a few days time you have become a thief and a murderer? Must you still pursue your insane fantasy of gaining revenge on the tribune Palatina?” She clenched her hands into fists and leaned toward him. “Your brother and sister are dead. Nothing you do can bring them back. How many more people must you kill before your blood lust is satisfied? Because that is what it is now, Dismas; not justice, but a lust for revenge. And it is unclean and hateful in God’s eyes.” She brought her hands to her forehead in frustration.
But if young heroes listened to their beautiful women, we wouldn’t have novels about their mistakes, and Dismas’ mistakes eventually land him in Herod’s prison right alongside Gethas – who, in an interview with Herod, implicates his cousin for no other reason than pure spite. The two end up just where even the sleepiest Sunday School student knows to find them: on crosses, on either side of Jesus.
As we’re famously told in the Gospel, Gethas rebukes Jesus, angrily demanding that if he is indeed the Messiah he free not only himself but them as well. Before Jesus can answer, Dismas rebukes his fellow thief, “Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art likewise condemned? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds. But this man hath done nothing wrong.”
Dismas turns to Jesus and says (in Connolly’s wording, which, you’ll be relieved to know, is entirely free of those ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s I love so much), “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus instantly replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” In Luke, they’re the last words Jesus says to another person before his death. Connolly follows them by a tiny glimpse of what awaits Dismas after death – a glimpse as brief as it is heartbreakingly beautiful.
The Good Thief is a fast-paced and assured debut that earns a place on the shelf beside Ben-Hur and I, Judas. This is popular religious fiction done exactly right.