Ever since the days of X-Files, I’ve had a long fascination with bizarre, conspiracy-ladened historical theories. When done well, they shine as white-hot examples of brilliant plotting. Oftentimes, like in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon or The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, the authors approach it with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, mixing bizarre but proven historical facts with wild fiction in ways that make it difficult to tell which is which. Others like Dan Brown’s surprisingly popular The Da Vinci Code take themselves very seriously hoping to expose “real” conspiracies by way of their fiction. I tend to prefer the former, and, thankfully, so does Christopher Dawes in his new memoir Rat Scabies and the Search for the Holy Grail.
Imagine, if you will, a semi-retired rock music critic in the midst of a midlife crisis moving into a new home in the quiet suburbs of Brentford, England. Strangely, he discovers one of his new neighbors is none other than Rat Scabies, drummer for the uber-important punk rock band The Damned. The two begin to bond over afternoon tea, trips to the local pub and discussions covering everything from neighborhood gossip to hedge-trimming to music.
As Dawes gets to know Scabies, he learns that Scabies is a man obsessed with a strange story of conspiracy and treasure. The story begins in 19th century France, at the small town of Rennes-le-Chateau. The local priest suddenly transformed from a man of limited means to a multi-millionaire. The general theory is that the priest stumbled onto a fabulous treasure – a treasure which may or may not have included the Holy Grail. Historians, archaelogists and treasure hunters have searched Rennes-le-Chateau for years without any sign of the treasure.
Dawes doesn’t believe the Rennes-le-Chateau tale at first, but with nothing better to do dives into the odd books, videos and websites trying to explain the priest and the source of the treasure. The memoir turns into a travel narrative and buddy book, taking Dawes and Scabies across Europe as they investigate different sites and uncover clues to the treasure. Theories of the treasure’s origin stem back to everything from the Merovingian Empire, alchemist formulas for creating gold, and the Knights Templar (and what good conspiracy is without the Knights Templar).
At this point readers might think of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but the investigative approach here differs greatly from that in Brown’s novel. With more than a little bit of Monty Python style humor, Dawes and Scabies investigate by riding bus tours and attending bizarre conventions populated with occultists, psychics, reincarnated medieval heretics and members of various secret societies. This lampoon humor, along with Dawes’s own back and forth beliefs in the story, wonderfully satirize the complicated and convoluted threads involved in a story like this.
I will admit, though, I was a little back and forth on how seriously to take this book until I came across this wonderful little paragraph:
Now he (Scabies) had a book balanced on his knees, a copy of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's blockbuster novel, which Joy had brought over for him from Britain for him. Not that he was reading it...he was using it to roll a spliff on. (164)
For Americans not hip to Brit slang, a spliff is a joint on the other side of Atlantic.
But in the end Dawes's book is not so much about odd historical theories, but about the friendship between Dawes and Scabies, how it was built on their mutual obsessions, and how they finally moved on. Witty, funny, and often downright off-the-wall, it contains just enough heart to make it a real reading pleasure.