Brother Barnabas
(creator: E M A Allison)

E M A Allison
Brother Barnabas has been cellarer (the central administrative figure) of the Cistercian monastery of Cawood Abbey in the North of England for five years. He had been the son of a miller, and the youngest of eight children. "His father was a kindly man, and, while they were not poor, there would not be enough for all his male children to live well on the earnings of the mill." So, twelve years before, at the age of eight, he had been sent to the Abbey as "a gift to God". His father had had him enrolled in the Abbey school, where he had learnt Latin and done well. He went on to become a choir monk, rather than just a lay brother, which would have been more usual for one of his class. "He had risen to the post of cellarer by his abilities and his intelligence, but his diffidence with those of a higher social class and his own uncertainties had kept him from being comfortable."

By 1397, he was forty-six and "well into middle age. He was a stocky man, inclining to fat, with the short legs and broad shoulders of his peasant heritage. His face was round, giving him a deceptively simple look, and the creases around his mouth betrayed the ease with which he smiled." He had a fringe of gray hair around his tonsure.

He is something of an innocent, ignorant of many of the ways of the world outside the Abbey where he had spent almost all his life. He "had always felt uncomfortable dealing with people. He preferred his facts to be neatly ordered, where they could be handled without complications." He "had only become cellarer because he had been asked, and Barnabas could never refuse a request". So when asked by the Prior to investigate the mysterious death of a fellow-monk, he feels he has no alternative but to get to work, even if he would have preferred to be left alone "to pray and read quietly by himself". He is a really convincing and interesting character.

E M A Allison was the name used by a husband and wife writing team: Dr Eric W (born c1948) and Dr Mary Ann Allison. They are principals of the Allison Group, a New York-based international consulting firm which conducts research into the nature of community and social change. There is a memory of Eric Allison in a guestbook entry. He is founder and coordinator of the graduate Historic Preservation program and Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at Pratt Institute. He has taught historic preservation and planning at Pratt since 1996. He has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Historic Preservation from Columbia University and an M.S. in City & Regional Planning from Pratt.

Dr Mary Ann Allison is an author, lecturer, and consultant on improving organizational effectiveness. She has over 25 years of practical business experience as a vice president at Citibank and as president of an Internet software start-up company. She teaches MediaStudies at Hofstra University.

They jointly wrote Using Culture and Communications Theory in Postmodern Urban Planning: A Cybernetic Approach (1983) and Managing Up , Managing Down (1984), but only the one detective story described below. Eric also published the business book The Raiders of Wall Street in 1986 , and Mary Ann was co-author (with Susanne Kelly) of The Complexity Advantage (1999). They live in Roslyn, New York.

Through the Valley of Death (1983)
Through the Valley of Death is set in the Cistercian monastery of Cawood Abbey (in Yorkshire?) in 1397. Brother Alselm is murdered, and Brother Barnabas, the cellerar, is told to investigate. It turns out that Brother Anselm had been Captain Jean d'Albret in his more worldly incarnation, and, after raping and killing his way across France, had made a lot of enemies. Could the families of his victims still be seeking revenge? Even the monastery's distinguished guests, the Bishop of Wakefield and the Earl and Countess of Cleveland, who are marooned there in heavy snow, may be involved. Brother Anselm has many a surprise before he eventually identifies the murderer - some time after the reader does, one suspects.

It makes an interesting story with some sharply drawn if unusual characters, such as the worldy Bishop who appears to know no Latin and has to be guided through the Mass step by step, then talks happily about hunting throughout the supposedly silent meal, his companion Canon Humfrey, who turns out to be his fifteen-year-old nephew, and the Earl's new wife, the Countess of Cleveland, whose "skirt was full and swept back as she advanced so that one could almost make out the shape of her legs .... Both robe and underdress were cut so low as to leave her breasts almost bare" - much to Barnabas' embarrasssment. The Prior, on the other hand, had served thirty years as a soldier and "still carried himself like a mailed and belted knight, yet he seemed to Barnabas to have the genuine humiliation of a man seeking God's grace. He was unfailingly polite to everyone. He made Barnabas nervous."

The language spoken is usually enhanced by no more than a few period words, and only occasionally does it go over the top, as when the Earl tells Barnabas: "I should have to be a suckfist indeed if I did think that a sudden visit by the one brother charged with investigating the death of that losel d'Albret was unconnected with that death. Don't try to cozen me, Brother Barnabas. Ask your questions straight out, and witterly I shall answer them." But a few lines later, he is simply saying: "When my first wife died, there was a question about the inheritance of a manor in Suffolk, since she predeceased her half sister by some days. Now the case is one of those that the lawyers love, for they can spend their lives digging into old records and discoursing on points of law." This is a lot easier to read.

The incidental descriptions of monastic life are interesting too, such as the description of the monks' shaving accompanied by psalm singing (a weekly event. They also found it desirable to have a bath as often as twice a year), and the elaborate meals they would offer guests.

Barnabas tries to apply the Aristotelian principles of logic that he had read about as a young monk: "Genuine proof results when valid inferences are drawn from true premises. Therefore he needed to learn the facts, the events of the matter, and make these his premises. Then he could apply the two fundamental laws of logic to his preliminary conclusions - the principle of contradiction, which held that a proposition cannot be both true and false, and the principle of the excluded middle, that a proposition must be either true or false. This would give him a set of postulates. From them he should be able to deduce the solution, the murderer." And so he does - even if it all turns out to be more complicated than he might have hoped.

Barnabas may be a reluctant detective, but he is certainly a thorough one, although he grows increasingly appalled by what he finds out about his subordinates and by all the evil around him: everything from blackmail to sodomy. "O Lord, grant me thy grace," he prays, "for I am troubled in my heart and know not what to do." He cannot help asking himself, "What have we accomplished? We have found that the Abbey is corrupt around us .... We are not one step closer to finding who killed Anselm!" But, encouraged by his Prior, he overcomes his self doubts, and after an attack is made on his own life, succeeds in identifying the murderer (about whom there are enough clues for the reader to be able to anticipate who it must be).

Barnabas' self-searching is helped by a fellow monk, the infirmarer, who suggests that "Perhaps now, with a bit more worldy wisdom, you will have an easier time of it", and, by pretending to talk about how he should instruct novices, reminds him that "By design the world is imperfect. Man was created perfect, but God also gave us freewill. .... Without the exercise of freewill, there would be no chance of salvation. .... Of course it is easy to fall into sin. If resistance were easy there would be no merit in resisting. And we, here in the Abbey, we have chosen a different path to deal with sin. We refuse all worldly pleasures and dedicate ourselves to God's service .... Your pain, your sensitivity, is part of the price we pay for living a more sacred existence than the Earl of Cleveland or his lady, for instance."

In the end, Barnabas decides he must accept his responsibility for helping other people, and decides to get ordained, and to leave the Abbey, even if he might return there later in life. "There was a world out there ... in need of spiritual guidance, of help - of love. It was no use arguing that one man could not make a difference. If God was to be served, he must make the attempt. He looked up at the crucifix on the wall. His faith told him that one man could make a difference. With deep humility, he knelt once more to pray." And so the book ends. Barnabas seems to have had a real spiritual experience, and it would have been interesting to know what he went on to do. Recommended.


The Allison Group have their own website, with some information about the authors.



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Thnrough the Valley of Death cover
The cover is nothing if not grim, but it is an interesting story with real-life characters.
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