Brother Paul

(creator: William Montalbano)

William D Montalbano
Brother Paul is an American Roman Catholic brother, "a kind of not-quite priest kicking around the back alleys of the world's largest church" (the Vatican in Rome). His job is "to keep the peace at a residence of seminarians where I'm sort of a combination father figure and sergeant at arms." But he is also a close old friend of the new young Latin American Pope with whom he has shared a violent and distinctly murky past, which I will not describe in detail here, as it is a major part of the story. Suffice it to say that he had been a Miami homicide cop, whose wife and two daughters had been kidnapped and murdered by a family group on whom he had been determined to seek revenge.

But ultimately the experience had led him to undertake a two-year novitiate at the small American order of the Brothers of St Matthias. As he points out, "Typically, a brother is somebody who wants to live a religious life but lacks the intellect and education to become a priest .... Being a brother quenches my thirst without drowning me. I have got all the religion I want, but I haven't surrendered all my freedom. Sure I sin. Okay. But somehow I think it's less important than if I were a priest doing it. Maybe that's an illusion, but it's the way I feel.... I am a raging heterosexual. I do my best to sublimate the urge, and regret it when I fail, but every now and then I wind up in bed with an attractive and willing partner for whom I feel affection." And he does not mind turning to violence, or breaking the law, if the occasion demands it.

William Montalbano (1941 - 1998) was a distinguished American foreign correspondent, who died of a heart attack, aged 57, while walking to his London office. He had been Rome bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times for 7 years, and then its London bureau chief for 3. While in Rome, he travelled with the pope on more than two dozen trips to four continents. He was the winner of a dozen national reporting awards and was the author or co-author of five crime novels, the last of which was Basilica. He was twice married and had two children by his first wife, and three by his second.

Basilica (1998)
Basilica is a story of Vatican politics and obsessional revenge, narrated by Brother Paul. He is one of two men who share a common stormy past. The other one is the new Latin American Pope, nicknamed Tredi (as an abbreviation for Pius XIII, tredicesimo in Italian). He had been a compromise candidate, and had followed in the steps of the "undistinguished Pope Nobody, (who) had done his church a mighty service by dying swiftly". And his immediate predecessor had been the "Inflexible Pole".

He was a young, audacious risk-taker ready to shake up the old guard, even if it meant making dangerous enemies. Who knows, but he might even tackle such contentious issues as birth control and married priests. As he tells Paul, "People shouldn't sin because it's wrong, an insult to God and to their own dignity; not because they''ll burn in hell... Suppose I was to tell people the truth: that God is God. Reach out to him the best way you can; He'll be there for you. Anger a lot of people, if I did that."

His unlikely friend, Brother Paul, is a former Miami homicide cop, still ever mindful of the horrific murders of his wife and daughters, and brought to Rome as an informal investigator for the Pope. When the first of a number of violent deaths occurs (a priest falls, or is pushed, from the top of the Basilica), Brother Paul is asked to investigate. He is soon enmeshed in a violent world in which his own life is endangered and he finds that, together with Pope Tredi, he cannot escape from his past.

The author is very familiar with the Vatican. As Paul says, "One of the earliest lessons anybody ever learns about the Vatican is that there are ways, and there are ways." And "At the Vatican, nothing ever really means what it says. Everything's open to interpretation." And as the author really had accompanied a Pope on his journeys, he can write about Tredi's visit to New York with complete conviction. He too probably looked forward to a time when, as Tredi hopes, there would be a Vatican Council Three when the Pope would "invite our brothers and sisters of other faiths to share their own thoughts with us at the same time" and they would "examine all key issues with a fresh eye." It would have been more interesting if the author had made such issues more central to his story.

Instead there is a great deal of very violent action, including that in two quite lengthy (and slightly distracting) flashbacks to the vicious past, involving drugs, killings, and theft in Miami 14 years before, and in Colombia 10 years before. Some characters. such as an unlikely Brother called Luther (!), are certainly intriguing, but, like the basic plot, are not entirely convincing. Given the author's inside knowledge of the Vatican, it seems a pity that he could not have adopted a more revealing and altogether less bloodthirsty approach.

There is an obituary of the author on The New York Times site.

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Basilica cover
The cover is quite enigmatic, and does not even hint at the violence of the story.
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