(creator: David Manuel)
|Brother Bartholomew is "a man of medium height with close-cropped, iron-gray hair", aged in his late forties when we first meet him at Faith Abbey in Eastport, Cape Cod. This is a residential ecumenical community of some 350 people. It includes a convent for 70 nuns, and a friary for a Brotherhood of 30 monks, to which Brother Bartholomew has belonged for 18 years. There are also 36 privately owned residential homes. It is, we are told, in spirit quite close to the Community of Jesus of which the author and his family have been resident members for well over 30 years.
Bartholomew, like the other Brothers, usually wears his work clothes: a navy blue wind-breaker, with a small emboidered cross over the heart, and khaki pants. As he explains, "We only robe for services and special occasions". It is all part of their Benedictine style work ethic.
David Manuel lives (with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and three grand-daughters) in the Community of Jesus, an ecumenical religious community at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he writes in an office that he constructed in a lighthouse. After graduating with an English degree at Yale, he spent four years in the Canadian Naval Air Force, working as a navigator on patrols out of Newfoundland and Iceland. He then joined the publishers Doubleday where he became the first editor of Doubleday, Canada. He became head of the the book publishing division of Logos International, before deciding to become a full-time writer. He has published some thirty books, mostly concerned with history and biography, but including the four Brother Bartholomew novels.
A Matter of Roses (1999)
The characterisation of the three developers is well done, even if we are taken further into their past histories than seems absolutely necessary. And it is a pity that we have wait until half-way through the book before Brother Bartholomew himself gets involved. He is much disturbed by the reappearance of his one-time girl friend, Lauren, after he had not seen her for 17 years. As he tells Brother Anselm, "If I hadn't become a Brother, I would have married her .... And what I feel for her - still - is so strong, it scares me."
Bartholomew prays, "Father the desire of my heart is overpowering. I love her. I want to be with her. I know she wants to be with me." But "he heard nothing". Eventually he groans, "I thought you were supposed to be love! This isn't love! This is hell! Saint Teresa was right: If this is how You treat Your friends, it's no wonder You have so few of them!" But then he admits, "You are love. You love me beyond all comprehension. And You have called me to be Your servant. In this place. In this way. (Silence) I accept my call.... (Silence) But as Brother Bartholomew arose, he smiled. He would sleep tonight." It is interesting that he never seems to spare a thought for the twice abandoned Lauren.
Once it gets going, it makes quite a gripping story with some memorable, if highly eccentric, characters. Perhaps in future books we shall be able to hear more about the Faith Abbey community, which even has its own orchestra, and services that are reminiscent of Episcopal ones: "traditional (some said old-fashioned) - strong on liturgy and formal prayers." It has 15 clergy and all those monks, nuns and resident members - so, who knows, perhaps there might be scope for murder here too.
A Matter of Diamonds (2000)
Bartholomew had just started celebrating the annual Blessing of Animals in the new basilica in Faith Abbey (the Community of Jesus, on which Faith Abbey seems so closely modelled, had just built a new basilica too) when he was called away. He reminds Burke, "I'm a monk, Dan. Monks don't get involved in murder investigations. They're supposed to spend their days in prayer; even when they're working, they're to do it in an attitude of prayer .... It's supposed to be peaceful ... But (he can't help admitting) it seldom is, when you've got 30 willful, independent, opinionated characters, average age 42, living in close quarters."
Most of the monks' characterisation is convincing. Bartholomew admits to Anselm, the Senior Brother, that "I feel - drawn to detective work. And there's a real pull to it - away from my life here". But Anselm tells him he should do what he can to help the Police Chief, although "At no time can your investigation disrupt your life here. Unless it is an emergency, I want to see you at all meals and services". And it is Anselm who can explain Bartholomew's tetchy relationship with his mother, who runs a local cafe and is an invaluable source of information for him: "Subconsciously you resent her for getting older, because it means that she is heading towards death," and so would become the second parent to abandon him.
Meanwhile the Police Chief is suffering from angina, and Clay Armstrong, a rich industrialist, is talked into closing down his existing firm Armstrong & Associates, and opening a new Research Clinic based on the ideas of Trevor Haines, a persuasive con man who has managed to persuade him that he has cured him of two cancerous spots by hypnotherapy. Haines makes himself so much disliked by Armstrong's three daughters and others, that a whole number of people seem to have a good motive for his eventual murder. It is the Chief who wonders, "What if they all did it? Like on The Orient Express?"
One of the suspects, Ban Caulfield, is a historical novelist and member of the Faith Abbey community (the author himself, remember, belongs to a similar community). He is mightily troubled by his guilty conscience. About to commit adultery with Saralinda Armstrong, "He was hurrying to undo the top clasp of her dress" when his eye was caught by the old gold cross she was wearing. A century and a half fell away, and he saw the goldsmith who had fashioned it, who had etched and gently hammered it, trying to put into the precious yellow metal all his love for the One who had loved him that much. Tears came to Ban's eyes. His mouth opened, but no words would come out. He could not take his eyes off the cross ..... He looked down at her.
The old and saintly Brother Columba dies. It is he who had told Bartholomew, "Did you know, my son, that there is a glow around your soul? How large a glow depends on how obedient you've been to the will of Our Heavenly Father, and how much other souls have been blessed by your presence here on earth. When your soul returns to heaven, the size of the glow around it will indicate how well you've fulfilled your mission on earth".
The most convincing parts of this story are those centred at Faith Abbey and/or featuring Brother Bartholomew. He had once resented having to leave jobs unfinished to attend regular services throughout the day. "He had given his life to God. But that was the easy part; he would spend the rest of his life getting his heart surrendered. Some orders did this in quiet contemplation .... and some, like the monks and nuns of Faith Abbey, sought to praise him in their work and worship .... Not my will but Thine be done, O Lord. As Columba had promised, it was getting easier .... What God wanted. The way He wanted it. The way it had been done for centuries. And would be done long after Bartholomew was buried with his Brothers in the Abbey's corner of the local cemetery."
A Matter of Time (2002)
He is left to stay there by himself in a small quarry cottage for "as many weeks as it takes" under the supervision of old Father Francis. He soon finds "He was not cut out to be a hermit. He missed his brothers .... He missed doing the services with them, chanting with them - good grief, he missed Latin?"
His 50th birthday was "the worst birthday of his life". He "wondered if he had ever been so miserable". But then he began writing down "what it seemed God was saying to his heart:
His written correspondence with God continues:
Having met up with (surprise, surprise) his old friend Police Chief Dan Burke who is on a week's deep-sea fishing trip, they become involved in the investigation of a brutal case of torture and murder with a drugs background. Against the backdrop of the Gold Cup regatta, Bartholomew finds himself joining in a horrific sea chase as a hurricane is building up. It makes a really exciting if violent climax.
As usual in these books, it is the clerical characters who are the most interesting. The violent villains are less convincing, as is the way that even a sympathetic character like Amy, married to her apparently much loved yachtsman husband, Colin, suddenly leaves her husband and seeks divorce apparently after only a single argument about their eight-year-old son's schooling.
There are some deserved gibes at the British pronunciation of certain words and it is explained that Wooster is the British pronunciation for Worcestershire, and Lester for Leicestershire. But the author has got this wrong. Wooster is the way they pronounce Worcester, and Lester is Leicester. But that doesn't make the spelling any less odd! And while we're being pedantic, the Italian cocktail is Bellini not Belini. But these are trivial details, and the story certainly grabs the interest.
Bartholomew happily ends up back on Cape Cod, and is even able to hug Koli. Recommended - if you can put up with all those cosy chats with God. Somehow the silence from God in the first book was rather kmore convincing.
A Matter of Principle (2003)
Miguel eventually becomes the abbot of the neighbouring monastery, and Abbess Maria, years after they parted, is still out to impress him. Indeed they are asked by the Bishop jointly to set up a Pamplona Festival of the Sacred Arts, and this starts them sending each other frequent lengthy e-mails, using the code-names Heloise and Abelard! Eventually, after many one-sided conversations with God (all she hears is silence), she gets into such difficulties with her plan to recover the two old statues that had once belonged to her convent, that she makes a promise to God: "All right," she whispered aloud, . "If you will somehow rescue this - cataclysm that I have brought down upon us all, I will give you my heart".
There is a second plot about Arab extremists planning to wire themselves up as live, dirty bombs - "explosives encased in highly radioactive uranium" - in an attempt to destroy Boston. Told of this by the police chief, Bartholomew agrees to get prayer groups at work, including the monastery's Rees Howells Brigade who pray "specifically against terrorist plots and activity". Rees Howells, Bartholomew explains, was "a Welsh miner who got caught up in their Revival. A lot of people believe that the Miracle of Dunkirk - getting the British Expeditionary Force out of France intact at the beginning of the Second World War - was due to the prayers of the group he led. Also, the outcome of the Battle of Britain. And Hitler turning east instead of invading". But, as Chief Police Dan Burke commented, "I don't put much stock in it".
This whole episode is far from convincing, and indeed when it comes to stopping the wired-up Arabs on a boat about to blow up a nuclear power station and so engulf Boston, the author avoids describing what happens in detail. We're just told that skydiver parachutists will be used, then "We got 'em!" exulted the case officer. The author isn't at his best handling moments of high drama - and here he just skips round it.
Brother Bartholmew's much loved cat dies but Bartholmew is convinced that he'll be waiting for him in heaven. When an American woman sighs, "I could use a caring God just now", he replies,
|As so often happens, the hardback cover of the first Brother Bartholomew novel (above) looks more restrained (and more distinguished) than the paperback edition (below).|