Brother Benedict

(creator: Donald E Westlake)


Priscilla Royal
Brother Benedict, the 34-year-old monk who narrates the story throughout, had been a member of Manhattan's Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum for 10 years. He had entered the monastery on the rebound from a failed love affair with a devout Roman Catholic who had persuaded him to take instruction in her faith. He tells us, "I found Roman Catholicism endlesssly fascinating, as arcane and tricky and at times unfathomable as the crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times", but when his mother died, "My new religion was a great source of solace and comfort to me."

The monastery that he joined had been founded by a "half-Moorish Spanish Jew who had converted to Catholicism solely to get himself and his worldly goods safely out of Spain so he could emigrate to America" but had then experienced mid-ocean visions of St Crispin and Crispinian, as a result of which he had founded "a monastic order on Manhattan Island, devoted to contemplation and meditation on the meaning of Earthly travel." There were now 16 monks living in the "Spanish-Moorish-Colonial-Greek-Hebraic building put up by Israel Zapatero nearly two centuries ago." So there they are on Park Avenue, surrounded now by some of New York's most expensive real estate. Benedict explains that, "Our meditations on Travel have so far produced the one firm conclusion that Travel should never be undertaken lightly .... which means we rarely go anywhere." This suits him fine.

Donald E(edwin) Westlake (1933-2008) was an award-winning author who wrote (and got published!) over one hundred novels (many of them filmed) and non-fiction books, either under his own name or that of numerous pseudonyms. He was raised in Albany, New York and attended three colleges but, he said, "none to much effect". He then spent two and a half years in the US Air Force where he said he also "learned very little". In 1959 he moved to New York City, at first working for a literary agency then writing full-time. He was married three times and had four sons as well as three step-children.

Brothers Keepers (2003)
Brothers Keepers starts with Brother Benedict in the confessional, admitting that he had had an impure thought while watching a blonde in a TV advertisement, and had also stolen an orange pen from another monk. But soon he is in far more serious trouble when it is discovered that the 19-year lease on the order's Park Avenue monastery had not only expired but mysteriously disappeared, pitting its sixteen monks against a greedy real-estate mogul who could quote scripture like a pro. In the end Benedict is even prepared to Travel not just into New York (that would have been adventure enough, particularly as he insists on walking everywhere he can and even on highways where he can't), but to fly all the way to Puerto Rico with next-to-no money, with a twenty mile walk at the end of it.

He had managed to fall head-over-heels in love with Eileen, the greedy landlord's daughter, and the only person who might be able to make her father change his mind about pulling down the monastery. Despite the remarkably effective, if violent, way in which he had saved them both from muggers, he finds that he does not enjoy playing detective in the noisy, profane and inexplicable world outside the monastery - even if "a week of sex (with the enigmatic Eileen in Puerto Rico) had awakened a hunger in me that had been dormant for a long long time." Benedict consoles himself with the thought that while, for the Church, "married sex is sanctified, and adulterous sex is condemned .... that leaves much of the world's sex in Limbo". But even so, he could not see his confessor giving him his approval. So what should he do? Return to the monastery - or have another rum?

The monks are certainly an interesting crew, ranging from Brother Hilarius (who wasn't at all amusing) to the confessor, Father Banzolini, who hands out copies of his magazine articles to clarify penitents' understanding, and a reformed thief who had given the remaining unsold copies of his autobiography to the monastery library where from time to time he could enjoy re-reading them.

There is plenty to intrigue and amuse the reader, as when we are told how the current abbot had "taken up painting only four years ago. and had already filled most of our corridors with his Madonnae and Children, done in a number of recognizable styles and with a great deal of meticulous craftsmanship, but not very much talent." Previous abbots had produced "lumpishly leaded stained glass windows .... placed in all the bedroom windows, eliminating at one stroke light and air and the view", "photo albums of the changing seasons in our courtyard", and a "fourteen-volume novel on the life of St Jude the Obscure." And there was the monk who used to scrupulously Illuminate everything, ranging from a No Smoking sign to a poster for a boxing match. All this had ended up in the attic. And it was this that must be searched in the hope that a heavily illuminated copy of the missing lease, revealing an option allowing the monks to stay, might be found there.

It all ends back in the confessional where Benedict certainly has much to explain. Recommended as an interesting and entertaining read.



The author has his official website, now maintained by his younger son, there is an article about him in Wikipedia, and a Donald Westlake Memorium on YouTube, as well as numerous other web mentions.



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