Mount St. Joseph University

Fun but Flawed: A Book Review of ‘Playing Saint’

Dateline: student newspaper

By: Danielle Watkins

If you like reading about ritualistic murder, demon possession and secret agents from the Vatican, then you will likely enjoy Playing Saint by Zachary Bartels. If you don’t like reading about any of the aforementioned subjects, there’s still a fair chance that you’ll like Playing Saint.

In reading the back-of-the-book summary of Playing Saint, with its descriptions of “secretive Vatican operatives” and “a centuries-old conspiracy,” I was expecting to read a thinly veiled rip-off of The Da Vinci Code. What I actually read was more like watching a clichéd crime drama that suddenly turns into a jump-scare filled horror film. Just when you think Playing Saint couldn’t be any more obvious, Bartels proves you wrong with one of the most surprising plot twists I myself have ever read.

The plot itself centers on Parker Saint, the charismatic semi-celebrity pastor of a growing megachurch. Out of touch with his faith and more focused on his rising fame, Parker finds himself miles out of his element when the local police call upon him to consult on a series of murders with darkly religious undertones. In the end, Parker’s “help” is based partly on internet research and partly on the advice of three strange “Jesuit Militants” sent from the Vatican to locate the mysterious “Crown of Marbella.” Why in the world would the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ himself be in Grand Rapids, Michigan? Just add that question to the list of poorly explained plot devices. To be fair though, Playing Saint was Zachary Bartels’ first book, and what debut novel doesn’t have at least a couple of contrived plot points?

Playing Saint was not without its flaws. At points it is contrived and clichéd. When the police officers’ main suspect was revealed to be a stereotypical Goth youth with a deep hatred for the “Christian imperialist elite,” I nearly gave up on the book entirely. Out of curiosity, however, I kept reading. I wanted to see if the book could recover from such a ridiculous banality, and I was pleasantly surprised when it did. Playing Saint, for all its problems, has a wonderful and dynamic set of characters that are all entertaining in their own ways, not the least of which is Parker Saint himself, whose quick sarcasm brings about many of the book’s comedic scenes. These characters are so cleverly crafted they all but make up for anything the action of Playing Saint may lack.

On my grading scale, Playing Saint receives a solid 7 out of 10. It is far from being a literary masterpiece, but it is still a distinctively fun read. Overall, it is the perfect book for any college student sick of reading nothing but heavy literature in all of their classes.