(creator: Willam Brodrick)
|Father Anselm Duffy gave up the life of a barrister to become ordained (unlike his author who gave up the life of a friar to train as a barrister). He had worked as a barrister for 10 years, but "had never fully settled into harness. There was a restlessness that started to grow .... Imperceptibly, he began to feel out of place, as if in a foreign land. There was another language, rarely spoken, and he wanted to learn it". He began to feel "a sort of homesickness, usually mild, and occasionally acute. He later called these attacks by stealth 'promptings'. All Anselm knew at the time was that they were vaguely religious in origin". So he set about buying Bible translations and books on prayer, and even a 38 volume edition of The Early Church Fathers, although he never got round to unpacking it.
The crunch eventually came when he was stopped by a Chinese tourist who persuaded him to have his photo taken outside the Royal Courts of Justice. He suddenly wanted to stop him by saying, "I'm not who you think I am. I'm a fraud", but instead hurried away to pray in Westminster Cathedral. It was then that he had "the only moment of near certainty" in his subsequent religious life. "The jostling between doubt and perseverance was to come later. But at that moment he understood, at last, what the underlying problem had been. It had been Larkwood Priory all along."
Larkwood was a priory of the Gilbertine order (in real ife this order never survived the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries) in Suffolk in the east of England. He had first visited it on a school visit at the age of 18, where he'd read the "extravagant claim on a vocations leaflet" that "We can't promise happiness, But if God called you to be here, You will taste a peace this world cannot give". These words were to become "a goad, an unwanted invitation that reminded him of what he most wanted to forget". As a young barrister, he'd taken to returning there for occasional visits, but after his experience with the tourist, he knew what he must do : "He became a postulant. He left behind a baffled family. He was thirty-four".
His "first surprise on entering religious life was to discover the monastery contained ordinary human beings alarmingly similar to one or two villains he had represented at the criminal Bar". Right at the start he had been warned by a monk who'd been a Tyneside docker, "You'll find out as you go along, the good guys always leave and only the so and sos remain". But 12 years later, Anselm is still there: "The elements of living a fulfilled life were broadly in position. A planetary motion of doubt, certainty, joy, anguish, loneliness and boredom, each on their own trajectory, encircled an evolving contentment. And, very occasionally, when he wasn't looking, the Lord of the Dance brushed past."
I have quoted the above at some length, because it is rare to find such a detailed insightful account of spiritual experience even in books featuring clerical detectives. It all seems to arise directly out of the author's own experiences, as are comments from Anselm like, "I've never yet been able to reconcile providence with experience. But I keep trying."
His "short ruffled hair and round glasses (he self-consciously begins to wear these in the second book) magnified a look of permanent surprise. His black habit was frayed; the white scapular flapped like a long serviette." But, as one of the other characters says of him, "He's forever puzzled, but he gets there in the end".
William Brodrick (1960 - ) trained as an Augustinian friar for five and a half years. He served his novitiate in Ireland, then worked in a London parish and took degrees in philosophy and theology at Heythrop College. But he left the Order just before he was due to take his final vows. He had not lost his faith, but felt that that particular path was no longer right for him. He worked with the homeless in London, then decided to train as a barrister.
He practised as a barrister for ten years, specialising in personal injury, and then, when he was forty, realised his life's ambition by writing his first book, The 6th Lamentation. The idea for it, he says, "was prompted by an event in the life of my mother, Margaretha Duyker. As part of a smuggling operation she took an infant by train out of Amsterdam to Arnhem but was arrested by the Gestapo. The child was taken away, She was imprisoned and eventually released. She died of motor neurone disease in 1989." His first book is dedicated to her. Brodrick is married with three children, and lives in France.
Brodrick admits to similarities with Father Anselm: he "is a man with faith, seeking understanding. After that, though, we differ. He is far more agreeable than me and his faults aren't so glaring."
The 6th Lamentation (2003)
The book's strength lies in the way the author has made use of his own experiences: life as a monk, what goes on in court, and even his own mother's death from motor neurone disease. It makes the whole treatment thoroughly convincing, and realistic. As Agnes says, "Loose ends are only tied up in books" as she pushed aside "the lingering, irrational hope that her life might yet be repaired by a caring author."
The monks too are shown as ordinary down-to-earth human beings. As the Prior puts it when wondering what to do with the fleeing Schwermann, "If he goes, there'll be international coverage of an old man protesting his innocence being handed over to the police; if he stays we'll be damned for supporting a Nazi. Either way, to lapse into the vernacular, we're shafted".
The Vatican itself is very aware of all the mud that might be stirred, and Anselm is directly commissioned by Cardinal Vincenzi, their Secretary of State, to discover what really happened in 1944 when a resistance group called The Round Table, working to save Jewish children, was betrayed to the Nazis. This is the sort of involvement that Anselm had been angling for, speaking as he did, "bloody good French" (he himself was half-French). But, as the Cardinal warns him, "You must appreciate that with an institution like the Church one cannot always allow the complete truth to meet the stream of public enquiry .... We are bidding for a manageable form of truth. It is a most delicate exercise, for I am trying to protect the future from the past".
Or, as Lucy (Agnes' granddaughter) later puts it, "Nothing's what it seems, you know .... None of us are who we think we are." This certainly proves true of the intriguing characters in this book. Anselm has to admit at the end, "Almost without exception, I misunderstood everything." As he says to his Prior, "Millions died from hatred, beneath a blue sky like the one over Larkwood this afternoon .... I just can't make sense out of it, other than to cry." The Prior replied, "You never will understand, fully, and in a way. you mustn't. If you do, you'll be trotting out formulas ... Out there, in the world it can be very cold. It seems to be about luck, good and bad, and the distribution is absurd. We have to be candles, burning between hope and despair, faith and doubt, life and death, all the opposites. That is the disquietening place where people must always find us .... Somehow, by being here at peace, we help the world cope with what it cannot understand".
Right at the end of the book, the old survivor, Agnes dies peacefully, having learnt so much more about what had really happened. "Death is like the past," she had told Lucy. "We can't change either of them. We have to make friends with them both." Altogether, it's a profound book about individual morality and responsibility that understandably attracted very favourable reviews. Recommended.
The Gardens of the Dead (2006)
As with the previous book, there's an underlying theme of evil and whether it can be undone which is actually more interesting than some of the machinations of the plot. It was Anselm himself who pointed out that "We could only undo evil to the extent that it has touched us. I can't do it for you; You can't do it for me .... The forgiveness of the victim .... goes right to the heart .... It's the only way evil can be undone."
Brodrick uses his own experience of working with the homeless to good effect, and one of the more interesting characters is a down-and-out nicknamed "Blind George" because of the old welding goggles he hides behind. He has lost his short term memory after being kicked about in the street. According to a letter Anselm received from the late Elizabeth, "He sees further than you or me .... A senseless attack. however, has damaged his short-term memory. He can only retain events by writing them down". He is one of the characters for whom you can feel some sympathy.
There is a nice passage too when the female Inspector Cartwright noticed that her chief suspect, Riley, had blood on his hands, and hurriedly switched her tape recorder back on. "Inspector Cartwight said, 'How did you kill him?'
Anselm 's own personal religious experiences too are still of interest. Elizabeth had once asked him whether he had heard a voice calling him to become a monk. "A quiet one," replied Anselm. "I've had to learn how to listen .... It sounds through your desires .... But it's deeper than any desire. It won't let you go. And even then you need a guide who knows the ways of the heart, in case you're deceiving yourself". But you yourself don't get any choice. "I get the impression that God isn't too keen on dialogue. It comes with the territory of always knowing what's for the best."
A Whispered Name (2008)
Anselm questions his prior about Father Moore, and goes on to discover his connection with a young man called Joseph Flanagan, an Irish soldier who had faced a court martial for desertion during the slaughter of Passchendaele in 1917. On the panel had been Herbert Moore, then a young captain, whose life had been changed as a result of what had happened.
It makes a powerful and gripping story, with all too realistic descriptions of trench warfare, and particularly the court martial and subsequent firing squad, although the jumping around from Anselm's investigations in the present to Moore's experiences in the distant past can get rather confusing. And there are, of course, numerous other books detailing the horrors of the First World War. But this one is intended by the author as more than just a straight account, as he sees it as "a parable of how a man found meaning in death, and how another - on seeing that - found faith in life."
Herbert was told by a monk at the Belgian monastery where he sought refuge to "Have courage. Approach the darkness in your heart, a darkness that needs more than enlightenment." For Herbert "The impact of the whole war on him was summed up in that phrase. He'd seen the annihilation of a civilisation. He'd lost faith in its past and its future." And he had done things for which he could never forgive himself. But, as Père Lucien tells him, "Herbert, you are forgiven. But you have wounds that will never heal. They are part of your loving. Use the suffering, your immense suffering, to heal others." And so Herbert joins the Order of Gilbertines, and later went on to become one of the founding members at Lockwood in Surrey where Anselm is now based.
Most of the book, however, is taken up not with Anselm but with a grim description of the misery and appalling suffering of the men in the trenches, an experience that they could not share with anybody who had not been there. "In order to survive, most soldiers had bottled up their own experiences, or changed their way of talking, to make it credible, to bring it properly dressed into decent society." It was the same for Herbert for "He said nothing to his brother monks, but he was still haunted" by what he had had to do.
He had once told Anselm that he was convinced that "nothing happens by accident", and that his job as a monk was "to tend a fire that won't out". This was "all the wisdom he possessed: it wasn't much but it was all Herbert had to give: an understanding of accidents and faithfulness." But even he ended up feeling "a completely new type of fear, alluring in a way, possibly exciting, but frightening all the same .... Yes, thought Herbert, I'm frightened because soon I will die." Even for him, there are no easy answers.
The Day of the Lie (2012)
This is a long narrative that gets off to a powerful, if incomprehensible start, that only really begins to make sense with the arrival of Father Anselm on page 55. But, as page follows page, and we get deeper and deeper into the secrets of Warsaw's terrible past, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember who is who or to identify with them. An example of how the author does not make it any easier for us is when he does not bother to mention that when his old friend, the now blind journalist John (an otherwise well-drawn character) had been badly injured in a road accident long ago, he had lost his sight in the process. As so often in this book, we have to work at it to understand what is happening.
The author explains in a note at the end that Roza "became someone so much larger than herself - a symbol of the ordinary person compelled to make far-reaching decisions in the darkness of their time without even a match to find their way. By extension Warsaw itself became more than a city that had been reconstructed after the Second World War. It was a symbol of the human refusal to be reduced to dust and cinders."
But, unfortunately, although the agonies of Warsaw's appalling history are vividly described, it is often difficult to empathise with the characters concerned. It nearly all happens in the past, to which there are frequent flashbacks, but this means there is a lack of dramatic action in the present, and Father Anselm's search for the identity of the mysterious Shoemaker (the pseudonym for the author of an underground paper distributed by Roza) lacks much excitement or sense of suspense.
At one point, one of the other characters promises Anselm, "I'll spare you the boring bits". If only the author had been equally rigorous, this would have made the book much easier to read. As it is, it's quite hard work, although it does raise some interesting points about the wisdom of "disturbing the past" that make Anselm question his own determined pursuit of justice. But this lengthy process of self discovery is perhaps more interesting for the author than for the reader.
The Discourtesy of Death (2013)
As Father Anselm discovers more about this paralysed woman, once an acclaimed dancer, who had been spared a drawn out illness, he soon suspects that her supposed natural death may be nothing but a soothing lie. He realises he must move cautiously to expose the killer, and gets increasingly concerned about young Timothy, Jenny and Peter's son, who is still learning to live without his mother. Then there is Jenny's adoring father, a not altogether convincing former army officer who is haunted by the memory of torture and shoot-to-kill operations in Northern Ireland (about which we hear more than we need to) and who is determined to shoot Peter Henderson.
According to the blurb, "Death, dying and killing, however, were never so complicated".That's no under-statement: it is an altogether confusing story in which it is it is not difficult to guess the killer, long before Anselm gets round to it. It is all very slow-moving too, not helped by lengthy dissertations about the morality or otherwise of mercy-killing. The best parts are when Anselm himself is present - without him things can soon get tedious.
It is not clear why Anselm asks ageing jazzman Mitch Robson (whom, when he had been a barrister, he had once got off on theft charges) to help him solve the case. His explanation that he hopes that Mitch joining in will make him "tell me why you stole the money and what you did with it. I'm hoping you'll hand yourself in and face the consequences" does not sound any too convincing.
Following Poirot's example, the author finally assembles all the cast so that Anselm can confront them all together and get them to reveal the murderer - but unfortunately the story does not end there but drags on introducing further complications, even including Mitch's elderly parents who have nothing to do with the main plot. And it all ends with Anselm reflecting that "the glory of life .... remained utterly breathtaking. That death with all its power, would always be the one who came afterwards, the latecomer who'd missed the party." It's all very philosophical but, for the most part, not a very exciting read.
|The hardback cover above looks quite distinguished, but lacks the simple clarity of the paperback cover below.|