Anne Emery Father Brennan Burke

(creator: Anne Emery)


Father Brennan X Burke had originally immigrated from Ireland with his parents at the age of ten, and had then been educated in New York where he attended the Jesuit Fordham University, intending to be an architect, but "he got the call" and was ordained. He spent four years in Rome earning degrees "in some arcane field of theology". He liked to be able to plan his own future and "every few years he wore the authorities down with a request to go somewhere of his own choosing." But he had no ambitions to rise in the hierarchy. So he served as a priest in New York and worked on an aid program in Brazil before moving to Halifax in Nova Scotia where he directs a choir school at St Bernadette's parish, and lives with the senior priest, Father O' Flaherty.

He was "tall with a full head of cropped black hair rimed with silver, and his hooded eyes were so dark they looked black. Stern and hawk-featured, he was someone who would address as 'Colonel' before you would say 'Father'." He could be violent and sometimes drank too much, and while he was still at seminary had dabbled in drugs and fathered a child.

He was very reserved in manner: "Very acerbic and difficult to talk to .... Not the sort of fellow to put his feelings on display". But he "saw it as his role to introduce children to the world's great sacred music" and was much admired by his choir. He felt that life without music would not be worth living, and he was composing his first Mass. He likes to "say the old Tridentene Mass as often as I can. I don't go so far as to say the new mass is invalid..... and I don't think everything about Vatican II was bad. My view was that they should have lightened up about all kinds of other things - birth control comes to mind! - but left the Mass and the music alone."

At the start of the first book, he is in "his late forties, maybe fifty". He starts as a murder suspect, but goes on in later books to become close friend and fellow-detective to lawyer Montague (Monty) Collins who is the narrator of the first books. As Monty's nine-year-old daughter later explains, “People think he is stern, aloof, and haughty but he's not. Or at least, deep down, he's not. He can seem that way to people who don't know him. But I do, and he is very kind, especially to children.”

Anne Emery (date of birth?) was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and grew up in Moncton. She is a graduate of St. Francis Xavier University and Dalhousie Law School. She has worked as a lawyer, legal affairs reporter and researcher. Apart from reading and writing, her interests include music, philosophy, architecture, travel and Irish history. She lives in Halifax with her husband and daughter. She was the winner of the 2007 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel for Sign of the Cross.

Sign of the Cross (2006)
Sign of the Cross is set in 1990 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The lawyer Montague (Monty) Collins is retained to defend Father Brennan Burke who is the prime suspect in a case involving the mutilation and killing of a young girl. Burke proves an extraordinary difficult client to handle as he seems intent on concealing much of his past. Monty tries to explore who else might have committed the murder. Could it be Burke's colleague, Father O'Flaherty, who is an elderly priest with an intense interest in violent crime, or could it be the parish secretary who carries a torch for Burke? Or a career criminal who had a violent encounter with him years before? Or a nun who seems intent on one-upping the priest at every turn? Or, Monty begins to suspect, could it be Burke himself? When another body is found, a murder trial becomes inevitable. Burke ignores Monty's advice and insists on taking the stand - with disastrous results.

The book won the Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel, and you can understand why. It is a well-told and interesting story, and you cannot help but share Monty's exasperation with the way that Burke time and again fails to be completely open with him. The author's repeated hints that worse things are to come (such as "I could bask in the satisfaction of a job well done. But I hadn't reckoned on my next encounter with Sergeant Moody Walker, and yet another damaging revelation about Brendan Burke") also help to build up the interest. And the interplay between Monty and Burke is always lively and entertaining.

The trial itself is, as you might expect from this author, is described in a vivid and realistic way. What is less interesting is what happens later, after Monty has discovered new evidence that could help establish Burke's innocence, and he and Burke confront the guilty party. It all comes as rather an anti-climax, not helped by pages of detailed explanations about how it all happened. But it will be interesting to read in later books how the unlikely but credible partnership of Burke and Collins develops.

Omen (2007)
Omen, set in 1991, tells how Halifax lawyer Monty Collins (who is still the narrator throughout) jumps at the chance of taking his estranged wife Maura and their two kids (Normie now aged 8 whose main characteristic is that she repeatedly loses her glasses, and 17 year old Tommy Douglas) on a trip to New York City with Father Burke. He hopes that the trip will help him re-establish better relations with his belligerent wife. For Burke, it is a return home to officiate at a family wedding, but more importantly he hopes it will give him a chance to explore his father's past, for he had just read an obituary of one Cathal Murphy, which he had recognised as a coded indictment of his father Declan's own life and an announcement of his impending death.

A burst of gunfire at the family wedding, during which Declan gets shot, underscores the veiled threat in the obituary, and Monty joins with Burke and Maura to look into the secret of Declan's IRA past. They are not helped by the way that Declan refuses to say anything at all about either his reason for suddenly fleeing from Ireland with his family forty years before, or his time with the IRA. Burke realises that the threat on his father's life "won't end until we get to the bottom of it".

Unfortunately the lengthy investigations (mostly carried out by Monty), complete with brief italicised flashbacks to the past, soon get distinctly tedious, and Burke's various brothers and sisters, and characters like the apparently innocuous old Irish priest, Father Killeen (who used to be an IRA killer and still seems involved with them), seem little more than stereotypes. It is hard to care very much about any of them. A real disappointment after the promise of the first book.

Burke himself seems to behave less and less like a priest, even sleeping with a singer he admires. When he realises that his father had caused a young man's death, he turns to drink rather than prayer. It is written in a very down-to-earth tough sort of way, with comments like Burke's brother's explanation that he has no desire to return to his former wife as he "would rather be home with a glass of Jameson's in one hand and myself in the other". But sadly the whole IRA part is a bit of a bore. A little more humor or exciting action might have helped, instead of all those interminable explorations and explanations of the past.

Barrington Street Blues (2008)
Barrington Street Blues is set in Halifax in early 1991, presumably before the events described in the precious book. A rich man and a poor man are found dead of gunshot wounds outside a seedy bar on Barrington Street. The police declared it is a murder and a suicide, but lawyer Monty Collins (the narrator throughout), hired to represent the victims' families, suspects it may be a double murder. The case gets complicated when the police link the gun to the suspicious death of a high-flying lawyer named Dice Campbell.

Helped by his friend Father Brennan Burke, and hindered by his femme fatale law partner Felicity Morgan, Monty explores the dark side of Halifax Society: hookers, drug addicts, boozers, gamblers, and people desperate to cover up a series of depraved parties that got way out of hand. Monty's investigations lead him to a hard-drinking widow, a ruthless businessman, an oddball psychologist, and a preacher who cruises the streets for young people. And the murder isn't the only thing on Monty's mind: a secret from the past and turmoil with his estranged wife Maura give him plenty to worry about.

This book has its entertaining moments, as when a small boy called Zach, belonging to one of Monty's clients, "picked up my radio, and was trying to pull the knobs off it.
'Put that down,' I told him. 'Now.'
'You can't make me!'
'Yeah, I can.' I got up and wrenched the radio from his hands. He began to howl, 'It's not his fault, his mother said. "The social worker says he has a problem.' "

On another occasion Zach is making such a rumpus that his mother tells him, "Zach! Get over in that fuckin' corner and be quiet or I'll cut it off!"
"Cut what off?" I asked, startled. The boy set up a wail that went on and on, up and down, like a siren.
"He knows what I mean. Don't you, Zach? I told him if he's bad I'll cut off the cable TV and he'll have to watch the CBC or the French. See how long he lasts with that!"

I also enjoyed the comic teasing speech that Monty made to his colleagues on his appointment as a QC. They did not really approve of having a criminal lawyer in their ranks so he teases them, "Can any one of us, in his or her most private moments, honestly say he has not, at some anguished moment of his life, shared the murderous fury of my recent client who took an axe to the pale and crumbling flesh of ..."
"Youre an arse hole, Collins," a colleague hissed.

When Monty goes to a house warming party, his hostess offers him a tour of the house. "Everyone else is up in the master bedroom," she tells him.
"Perhaps we shouldn't interrupt."
"No, no, I meant they're just having a look around."

His on-off relationship with his estranged wife is well handled: "Your drinking has increased ever since you started hanging around with Brennan Burke," she tells him.
"Am I hearing you right? I must be the only man in the world being castigated by his wife for spending too much time with a priest!"
"I'm just saying you've --"
"Had enough. I'm taking the kids to the Rankins concert. Don't wait up." "You got tickets?"
"I got tickets."
Silence, and "she considered the consequences of being obnoxious to me once again."
Then: "How many tickets?"
"Three." She knew I was lying about the number, but I didn't care. I would give the fourth to somebody else." In fact, of course, it is her he takes.

it is amusing too to hear of the chorus of hookers who were employed to sing gospel songs to celebrate Burke's 25th anniversary in the priesthood.

It is all told in a realistic sexually-explicit way, as when a prostitute explains to Monty how the medical examiner was wrong in imagining one of the killings to be suicide: it was a fellow hooker who had seen what really happened. "That's 'cause the medical examiner wasn't down on his knees in the parking lot doing some young dude when Leaman got iced".

It is Monty, of course, who does most of the real detective work, but it is only with Burke's help that he eventually identifies the murderer. In fact, on one occasion he even finds a message has been left in his office "from a Detective Burke, with a familiar phone number. I dialled and, when he answered, I said: "Getting a little full of yourself, aren't you, Burke?" A little too immersed in your role?"
"Just eager to be of service."

Monty seems rather less convincing in the violent way that he reacts to his discovery that his wife is pregnant with someone else's baby, and actually gets round to physically assaulting his supposedly good friend Burke.

The real problem, though, is that the plot is simply not strong enough to hold the interest throughout and the leisurely discursive pace makes it very slow moving. Irrelevancies, such as an amusing description of Burke rehearsing his choir, are actually a lot more interesting than all the detailed conversations that eventually lead to the the unmasking of the murderer. It is an improvement on the previous story but there is still a chronic lack of exciting action.

Cecilian Vespers (2009)
Cecilian Vespers
starts in November 1991. Father Burke is running a course on the glorious music of the church's past for which he has assembled a group of students from around the world. Amongst them is Reinhold Schellenberg, a world renowned and controversial German theologian. It is his blood-drenched body that is found on the altar of the church during Vespers on St Cecilia's Day.

The cast of suspects whom narrator/lawyer Monty has to confront include a flamboyant Sicilian priest who had left the Vatican under a cloud of suspicion, an eccentric English monk who had penned scathing attacks on Schellenberg's actions during the second Vatican Council, a disgruntled American ex-priest who could not quite let go, a church lady with a history of violence, and, most perplexing of all, a cop from the former East Berlin.

The Church background, and ecclesiastical arguments about music and liturgy are well described, and this time they have the advantage of being really relevant to the plot. As far as Burke is concerned, "The greatest musical heritage of the church went out the window after Vatican II. In setting up his schola cantorum, he intended to do his part to recover what had been lost." He has no time at all for such modern "hymns" as:
"Sharing, caring, daring yet to be
At the Jesus table, friend to you and me.
Share him, care f'r Him, we, Christ bo-od-y,
Yea, His body and His light, His folk are we!"
Instead, he set about composing his own Mass and the experience, we are told, makes a new man of him - but not before he has enjoyed a new sexual encounter in Rome. Monty still suspects that Burke may be the father of his own estranged wife's baby - but this is something that is not (yet) sorted out.

There are amusing descriptions of the various participants in the schola and the fierce arguments that develop between them. Burke introduces one of them, an elaborately attired priest, to Monty: "Monty Collins, meet Father Enrico Sferrazza-Melchiorre."
"Piacere, Signor Collins."
"My pleasure. I saw you in the church. Where are you from, Father Enrico Sferrazza-Melchiorre?"
"Mississippi."
"What? Forgive me. I don't speak Italian so whatever you said sounded like --"
"You heard me correctly, signore. I live in rural Mississippi."
"Impossible!"
"Yes. It is impossible and yet, è vero, like the resurrection. It is the truth."

It turns out that he is not only an excellent cook but "rumour has it Enrico's mother is descended from one of the Renaissance popes, but nobody knows for certain. Ask him; he just shrugs." He had gone to Mississippi from Africa, regarding it as as a neglected mission field for Catholics. even though the people in Main Street, Mule Run, still "regard me with suspicious eyes .... they peer at me from the gun shop across the street. I am always made to feel like a stranger in the town. I did some work on restoring the church, a small white wooden chapel. Charming in its own way. I brought over from Italy a little freeze of naked cherubs and I placed it over the door. One of my cherubs - a boy - soon came to grief. Someone must have attacked him with a chisel or perhaps the butt of the gun. There have been other desecrations. But - " a shrug - 'hasn't it always been so?" In Mule Run, we are told, "they know him. however improbably, as Father Hank".

Another lively character is Burke's old friend, Sister Kitty, who tells Monty, "I work for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In the Palazzo San Callisto over in Trastavere. We promote justice, peace, and human rights throughout the world according to the principles of the Gospel. Simple. I expect our work will be completed by week's end and we can all go home."

Monty's young daughter Normie "had got it into her head, for some reason, that Father Burke might be an angel. This had been going on for months now, ever since she first saw him celebrating Mass in his white vestments. She said there were spirits all around him on the altar. Normie has a touch of second sight, or so I've been told by her maternal relatives in Cape Breton. She had not yet come to a conclusion about Burke; apparently there was still a great deal of research to do." But she helps Burke discover more about the lives and particularly the deaths of various saints, information which eventually leads to the discovery of the murderer.

Meanwhile Burke still find himself sometimes having a drink too many, and wakes up on one occasion to find that a visitor from Mule Run, one Brother Eldon, is declaiming: "I'm a creation scientist. And I am on a lecture tour, Montague, to warn Christian families of the evil of teaching Darwin's theory - theory, not fact - of evolution to our children. A close reading of the Bible tells us the earth is 6000 years old. God is never wrong, the Bible is the word of God, the Bible is never wrong."
"The Bible -" a groggy Irish voice had joined as " is about 'the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, the kingdom of heaven.' And not about 'the motion and orbit of the stars, their size and relative positions, and the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon .... 'Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.' St Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis. Written in 451, Anno Domini."

The author has certainly done her homework. Unfortunately, though, she still prefers long chatty conversations, and long drawn-out explanations to exciting action. But there is much in this story to interest and entertain, and, from the point of view of clerical detectives, it is surely the best book in the series so far.

Children in the Morning (2010)
Children in the Morning sees lawyer Monty Collins, helped by his friend, Father Brennan Burke, taking on the case of Beau Delaney, who is a prominent lawyer whose exploits had became the subject of a Hollywood movie. He's also the father of 10 children, most of them fostered. Now he's charged with the murder of his wife, Peggy. Then a mysterious eleventh child turns up and demands to take part in the trial. But Beau is determined that his evidence should not be heard.

The narration is shared between Monty and his little daughter, Normie, who, like her spooky great-grandmother in Cape Breton, has the gift of second sight and starts having terrible visions that seem to involve Beau Delaney and an abused baby. But the way that the nine-year-old girl is able to repeat word for word the extended conversations that she overhears seems distinctly unlikely, as when she reports on a conversation between her mother and Father Burke when she is telling him off for drinking too much. He replies:
“Amn't I a big strappin' lad who can hold his drink? The amount I sip may be 'too much' for the faint of heart and the delicate of stomach, but it is not too much for me.”
"I beg to differ.”
"What else is new? At some point in your life you have differed from every other member of the human race and if you had the time, you'd make a point of telling every one of them face-to-face exactly why they are poor, benighted, misguided eejits, and you and you alone are one hundred percent correct.”
“So you don't think your drinking is a problem?”
“Of course it isn't! What's got into you?"
"Prove it. Don't drink it.” She looked at his glass.
“Are you daft? Leave a glass of Jameson's sitting there, unconsumed? Think of, well, think of all the labour that went into perfecting that glass of whiskey. Distillery workers dedicated to their craft, spending hours - ”
“Spare me the labour theory of value, Father Marx. Though now that you mention it, I should drink it myself in solidarity with the workers. And of course this way, it won't be a temptation in front of you for the rest of the night."

And she goes on reporting in such detail for page after page! But she proves a lively reporter and can be amusing too, as, when she was allowed “a tiny bit of wine in a little wee glass”, her father warned her, “Whoa! Take it easy, little one. Don't be getting too fond of the drink there, Normie!” and little Normie solemnly tells us, ”If you get too fond of drinking you become an alcoholic. Which is bad. But I don't have that problem. I can drink or not drink; either way is fine with me.”

Burke himself is not so keen to be cutting down on the drink, but is reduced to ordering just a ginger ale. “Would you like a little umbrella in the glass and a twist of – ” enquires the waiter.
“You bring me a little umbrella, David, and then ya can shove it up your arse so far it'll choke the breath out of ya, and ya won't be able to gasp out your Act of Contrition before dying unforgiven and unmourned.”
He seems very far from being a conventional priest. And there is also Normie's young brother, a “little dark-eyed black-haired baby”, who is remarkably close to Fatheer Burke in appearance and with whom he seems to have a very special sort of relationship.

The plot is intriguing at times, but not altogether convincing as when young Normie sets out with another little girl to confront the fearsome Hells Angels in their clubhouse and is not only welcomed by Axe, their leader, but later taken safely home on the back of their motorbikes. But it all unfolds at an increasingly leisurely pace until the murderer confesses all to Monty, and Normie is able to phone her psychiatrist (Burke's brother) and tell him, "I'm not crazy and I'm not sick, and I don't have headaches any more. All those things I saw were true." But a little more excitement would have helped the story along.

Blood on a Saint (2013)
Blood on a Saint, set in 1992, tells how Father Brennan Burke's patience is tested when a young woman claims that the Virgin Mary has appeared to her in his churchyard, and hordes of reporters converge on the scene. Things get even worse when Burke is ordered by his archbishop to defend the church on the dreadful Pike Podgis talk show. Its aggressive host clashes with Burke the minute he arrives and Burke ends up by walking out of the live transmission.

When the body of the same young woman is found on church premises, it is Pike Podgis who is charged with murder, and Burke's friend, lawyer Monty Collins, who takes him on as a client. Monty and Burke, who continue to meet to enjoy a drink and music (including that played by Monty) at the "Flying Shag", both want to uncover the truth, but one is bound by client confidentiality and the other by seal of confessional (the belligerent Pike Podgis had quite amazingly confessed all to Father Burke just to provoke him!).

It makes a slow-moving and very unlikely plot, with different sections devoted to Monty and Burke. Burke, who had been a priest for over 25 years, is the more interesting character, but the emphasis in this story is on Monty. We are told how impressed he was that Burke "was able to recover from a hard night of drinking and carrying on to fulfil his role as a stand-in for Jesus Christ at the sacrificial altar."

Burke is both aggressive and unforgiving, his one goal being "to see Podgis go away and spend 25 years in the purgatory of prison before being cast into the outer darkness for all eternity." He is quite prepared to break into Podgis's flat and even finds the idea of beating him unconscious "a fairly tempting idea."

It is a very unconvincing tale, especially when Kiri Te Kanawa not only makes a personal appearance but insists on Burke singing a duet with her - and it isn't entirely a joke when one of his friends describes him as a "stone-faced, hard-drinking, carnally-knowledgeable, tough arse renegade." He makes a distinctly unlikely priest. Or let's hope so.

Ruined Abbey (2015)
Ruined Abbey is set in 1989. The Troubles are raging in Ireland, and bombs exploding in England. In this prequel to the Collins-Burke series, Father Brennan Burke is home in New York when news of his elder sister's arrest in London "on some kind of a trumped up charge" sends him flying across the ocean. It seems that she may have annoyed the authorities because, as a professor of history of the University of London, she had presented a paper to a Cromwell conference that she had titled "Lord Protector, me arse."

The family troubles deepen when Brennan's cousin Conn is charged with the murder of a Special Branch detective and suspected of a terrorist plot against Westminster Abbey. The Burkes come under surveillance by the murdered cop's partner and are caught in a tangle of buried family memories.

The story of the troubles is well researched with some interesting bits of information that were new to me, such as the way Irish republicans in Belfast would paint their walls white as "a white wall makes it easier for us to see the silhouette of a Brit soldier lurking in the neighbourhood. Brits don't like that so they paint the walls black. We paint them white again." It is a pity though that the presentation is so American Catholic Irish that almost the only sympathetic British character turns out to be an Irish double agent! There isn't the slightest attempt to explain the Protestant case. We are not even reminded that the majority of the population of Northern Ireland were bitterly opposed to what they would have seen as Catholic occupation.

There is some discussion of what is meant by a "just war": Brennan's sister explains," Fight for a united Ireland, with the Brits out, is the right thing to do. And they won't go on their own, so physical force is the only language they understand. It's what called I guess, a 'just war'." Yet she admits, "Some of the things being done for the cause; some things are just wrong .... You will not be hearing me apologise for terrorism, no matter who the perpetrator is." Yet guerilla warfare is not terrorism, so killing British soldiers is all right. That's a 'just war'.

It emerges that Brennan himself was once quite prepared to handle a rifle, but, although he now has more priestly duties to fulfil, his basic beliefs about the Irish situation have not grown any more sophisticated. And he does not seem troubled by any of that loving your neighbour nonsense!



The author has her own website and there is an interview with her on the Mystery Fanfare site.



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