(creator: Simon Parke)
Abbot Peter, when we first meet him, is described as "fit for his sixty years on earth". After spending 25 years as Abbot responsible for the remote monastery of St James-the-Less in the deserts of Middle Egypt, he has now retired to live in the little Sussex seaside village of Stormhaven (based on the real town of Seaford) where he has inherited a small house on the seafront.
"His friends called him calm, insightful, lethal; his enemies called him distant, isolated and a fraud." He had no interest in chatting about share prices, golf or pornography which he realised "could make extended conversation with any man difficult. But on the plus side, Peter listened, which usually sufficed. More than conversation, men seek someone interested in what they have to say, whatever the nonsense, someone to hear them out and sometimes to laugh. Peter could be that man."
He had been adopted as a baby but his true father had been "both bully and adventurer, who discovered a great secret in Afghanistan, became a spiritual teacher and fathered various children with his disciples." This great secret, which was to profoundly influence Abbot Peter (as it did the author) was the Enneagram, described below, that enables him to look below the surface and see people as they really are.
He had been a Head Boy at a minor public school then been expelled for organising a sit-down protest before moving on to read history at St Edmund Hall in Oxford. But he had a mental breakdown and spent four months in a London psychiatric unit where he had a religious experience ("an experience of beauty") that led eventually to his monastic calling.
Simon Parke was born in Sussex, and read history at Oxford University, where he began producing scripts for TV and radio, including the satirical show Spitting Image. He subsequently won a Sony radio award for his work on Simon Mayo's Big Holy One. He became a priest in the Church of England for 20 years, serving in three London parishes, before "leaving for fresh adventures".
He then worked for three years in a supermarket. He went on to become a full-time writer, therapist and retreat giver. His publications are mostly religious and philosophical works including The Enneagram: A Private Session with the World's Greatest Psychologist, the nine segments of which represent the nine different types of personality, each of them offering a chance of happiness, depending on whether or not you make healthy or unhealthy choices: "There are no good or bad numbers, just healthy and unhealthy manifestations of them." He goes on to explain, "I have been both student and beneficiary of it for twenty-five years and a teacher of it for fifteen. Maybe it will become a friend to you."
He is now a regular columnist for the Church Times. He lives in Seaford with his partner, and his ambition, he says, is "to be happy in his own skin because everything else flows from that." And he believes that the Enneagram has shown him how. He has two children from his first marriage.
Peter partners the attractive and ambitious Detective Inspector Tamsin Shah who surprisingly turns out to be his niece - and, even more surprisingly, invites herself to stay with him. But then the plot itself is there to enjoy, not necessarily to believe in. Peter soon realises that the nine people present at the dead vicar's last church meeting represented the nine personality types described in the Enneagram, a philosophical theory which is as important to Peter as it is to the author, but an odd, if intriguing, constituent of a crime novel. The frequent italicised flashbacks to the (real) Russian philosopher Gurdjieff's late 19th century search for the (only possibly real) Sarmoun Brotherhood who possessed knowledge of the secret Enneagram, form another odd element but, at least at first, are quite interesting in themselves. Peter, like the author, had written a book about the Enneagram but was having great difficulty in getting it published. As a publisher had told him, "I do wonder if the Americans might not be a better market for the Enneagram. The English tend to be less credulous and rather more how shall I put it rational about these things." Was the author writing about his own experience with publishers?
The story telling is lively and entertaining (although a weary police sergeant felt that "a freshly crucified figure is the last thing you need"), and Peter himself is an appealing character. Other characters come to life too, ranging from the self-seeking Bishop (who was "ripe for advancement" but unfortunately "looks a Nazi war criminal") to Sally, the nothing if not ambitious curate who made it her business to be liked by everybody. The Bishop was sure that "Sally would go far. But he didn't want her going too far with the Rev Fontaine (the black vicar) and thereby messing things up for herself." But it turns out that few of these people are what they seem to be. As Peter tells Tamsin, "Humans are liars, I grant you, we can't help ourselves but strangely, we're more likely to be disarmed by kindness than terror."
The author goes in for very short chapters and the jumping around from one character or another, particularly during the unlikely denoument, leads to some confusion. But it certainly is all highly original and very different from most detective stories.
I found this a disappointing story after the promise of the first book, partly because the frequent flashbacks to ancient Persia or to the life of Barnabas get quite confusing and do not always hold the interest.The very short chapters (one of them is less than a page long!) do not make it any more coherent, but sometimes seem to interrupt the action in a totally arbitrary way, as when chapter 22 ends with the appearance of a girlish figure: "And you are?' asks Peter. The next chapter then starts with her reply, "Bella Amal, the Mind Gains administrator." Presumably this is meant to build up suspense. I just found it distracting. It is even more annoying when potentially exciting action is interrupted by one of those Persian flashbacks, as happens beween chapters 33 and 34. This breaks off the sense of involvement that the author has been carefully building up.
There are some interesting characters including the humourless ex-prisoner, The Reverend Ezekiel St Paul, Pastor of the Seraphimic Church of the Blessed Elect in Uplifting Glory, whose "polite and precise manner belies the savagery of his inner workings", wears a "shiny lime green suit and dog collar", insists on being called "Reverend" and does not see anything at all amusing in proudly telling Tamsin that, at the Feast of Fools, "I was a cock .... It can be useful at parties to have an animal in us .... a cock in us, or whatever." But unfortunately the other main suspects are not as entertaining.
There are some lively sequences, as when Janet, part-time costume manager at the theatre and full-time doctor's receptionist out of it, deals with a particularly aggressive patient, and when the one professional actor Margery (who resents not having had a more successful career) unsuccessfully tries to advise the chirpy young amateur Millicent about acting.
Then there's the 24-year-old playwright Paul Bent (who was "always 12 to his parents") and had annoyed his father, the Bishop of Lewes (or the Bishop for Lewes as he insisted being called, as he felt it sounded more humble) by changing his surname from Straight to Bent and writing the "grubby little play" with its destructive take on family life.
Peter's tricky on-off relationship with Tasmin is convincingly handled. The characterisation throughout is one of the author's strengths, and that includes the solitary Peter himself who is quite capable of knocking a cyclist into the hedge and who, we learn, had once needed psychiatric treatment, and Tasmin, who is quite prepared to tell lies and has to consult a counsellor about her feelings of vulnerability. It is all very realistic.
"Why does the life of a 14th century German monk, hounded by the Inquisition, suddenly matter quite so much in 21st century England?" This is a question posed by the author, but, after reading the book, it is not one I can answer. We keep flashing back to Meister Eckhart, a famous Christian mystic who was brought to trial accused of heresy in Avignon in 1327 and about whom the author has written a book. His trial scene is really interesting (he explains that God created us before we were born), but otherwise, despite some lively dialogue, his presence just distracts from the main story, and his relevance is far from clear, even if Timothy Gershwin, the play's director, does recommend his works to Peter.
As with the other books, we also jump around in contemporary time, so at one moment we are "four months before the killing of Hermione" or "the day after the murder of Hermione" or "two days before the murder of Hermione". This does not make the complicated plot any easier to follow. But there is plenty happening, with Peter buried alive and thinking about the ancient Egyptians' preoccupation with death. Guess who it is that comes to his rescue? It makes a good story with interesting complex characters although it does demand close attention from the reader. But why so much about Eckhart - even if he is the author's "hero from the past"?
A (Very) Public School Murder (2016)
It soon becomes apparent that most of the staff would like to be rid of their head - and Tamsin realises that they are all "a determined bunch of deceivers."
The Indecent Death of a Madam (2017)
It is a fast moving and entertaining story that certainly holds the interest, told with a nice sense of humour, as when a churchwarden, heavily involved in charity work, explained why she had bought the local brothel, "I'm branching out a little." The other characters are full of surprises too, as when two of the girls working in the brothel chat together, " 'Who said there aren't sugar daddies in Stormhaven! Up and coming town, this!' The emphasis on "up and coming" left little to the imagination, but then that was Cherise for you, her sort of humour. Katrina didn't approve; she was Catholic, after all, and a close friend of the Virgin Mary. But whatever their jokes, Katrina liked her colleagues well enough. She felt safe here, which was something she could not say for much of her life. Here in Church Street she sensed they were in it together; they were sisters, watching out for each other. They did look after you."
The members of the Etiquette Society too are a lively bunch of eccentrics, including "a war hero, an attention-seeking estate agent, a cold-as Alaska (black female) judge, and an outrageous journalist." Altogether,it makes an engaging story, with the descriptions of the up-market brothel and of Rosemary's funeral being particularly well handled. It is told in the author's usual short chapters (one of which is less than a page long), but I would certainly commend it for its inventiveness and, despite a melodramatic ending, its sheer sense of fun.
Another Bloody Retreat (2018)
Although Peter faces deception, delusion and death, he never does any actual detective work. That is left to his later life. However we learn much more about him and his inner doubts and difficulties than we had before, and numerous interesting theological questions are raised, as when faced with ambitious young Carol, a priest visiting from England, he quotes St John of the Cross: "No knowledge of God which we get in this life is true knowledge." She accuses him of lack of faith and suggests he should resign his orders.
It is a tradition at the monastery that everyone adopts a name. "People choose for themselves a name that says something essential about them, whether their compulsions or their hope. So I am Peter the Fool, for instance, because I have an unfortunate desire to be wise." Altogether he is an attractively self-deprecating figure who has to struggle with a host of everyday relationships, including those with "nimble and vain Donaldo, Abbot of the Sacred Heart (a nearby and much more prosperous monastery), Ted the Yes meaning No, Sanjay the Mouse, all caution and fear; Constantino the Lost, Tear-Sing the Sad" and "the unsacred and heartless Sacred Heart."
Then real disaster strikes with the sudden arrival of the military, led by the brutal if troubled Skarat who feels the need to dominate and does not hesitate to hang one of the least offensive monks. His motto is, "Do under others, before they do it to you," a view that Peter had seen "in bishops and nuns, nurses and receptionists: deep-frozen childhood rage, and loosed on everyone but those who had caused the pain in the first place." Skarat insists the harsh treatment he had experienced in childhood "was the making of me."
|This is the Enneagram symbol, representing the nine types of humankind, an understanding of which, the author believes, is the way to a happy life.|