Abbot Peter

(creator: Simon Parke)

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.

While at his monastery, "it had been his idea for the monastery library to develop its own crime section", and he admits that "it was possible he'd only ever wanted to be a detective and that the role of Abbot was a time-filler before the real thing." He is the narrator throughout.

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.

A Vicar Crucified (2013)
A Vicar Crucified describes how, when Stormhaven's unpopular local vicar (an about-to-be dismissed black man) is discovered crucified naked in the vestry, the Abbot is invited to act as a Special Witness investigator. This, we are told, is "an idea on trial in the area, to promote a more earthed and insightful investigation. A member of the public who is recognised as a trusted citizen of the affected community can now be brought in to assist the police. They are involved in all aspects of the case, kept fully informed of developments and work closely with the officer leading the enquiry." How convenient for the author!

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.

A Psychiatrist Screams (2013)
A Psychiatrist Screams is centred around Henry House, an Elizabethan manor in the bleak seaside town of Stormhaven in East Sussex, now occupied by Mind Gains, a new therapy centre where a Feast of Fools Halloween party for staff and clients ends In the gruesome and bloody murder of mild mannered therapist Barnabas Hope who had been the not very qualified co-director at the clinic. Once again, retired monk, Abbot Peter (who is now 61) and his niece Detective Inspector Tamsin Shah (who had first met him only eleven months be
fore), are called upon to solve the mystery. As staff and clients come under suspicion, Abbot Peter finds clues in the mystical writings of Hafiz, a (real-life) 14th century Persian poet, who was perhaps of more interest to the author than to the reader. But Peter's main aim is to identify the Feast of Fools' masked Lord of Misrule who, he is convinced, must have been the murderer. It all leads up to a melodramatic moment when Peter finds his own neck in a noose. After that things slow down and get distinctly complicated. It requires quite an effort to grasp the lengthy explanations.

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.

A Director's Cut (2014)
A Director's Cut gets off to a good start with Abbot Peter (who has been living in Stonehaven for three years now) taking his niece (Detective Inspector) Tamsin Shah for a night out to Stonehaven's famous Bell Theatre, to see Paul Bent's controversial new play, Mother's Day. The Bell had been a successful theatre in an unlikely setting, led by the dynamic Hermione Bysshe-Urquhart, MBE, but she is found murdered on stage at the beginning of the second act. Tamsin is put on the case, and she again enrols the help of Peter as Special Witness.

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.
"Nothing to be afraid of," she advises her.
"I'm not afraid."
"I'm just saying."
"No need really."
"As a professional to an amateur."
Milly was looking out of the window.
"It's a big break for you, of course, Milly."
"Millicent." ....
"Don't be overawed by me," Margery tells her, standing too close to her.
"I don't think I am," Millicent replied escaping to the window.

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)
A (Very) Public School Murder sees Abbot Peter, now in his mid-60s, helping his niece, the attractive and ambitious Inspector Tamsin Shah, investigate the violent death of the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, new Headmaster of Stormhaven Towers, Jamie King, whose body is found splayed on the rocks at the foot of Stormaven Head during the residential School Review Weekend when he had managed to upset various members of staff including the Director of Boys, Geoff Ogilvie, as well as Bert Betters, "the useless Director of Wellbeing" (who specialised in "woodcraft, mindfulness, ancient England, that sort of thing" and the ambitious school chaplain, Father Ferdinand, whom he asked, "You're not gay, are you, Ferdy? Well don't look so surprised! I mean, I wouldn't mind. And a lot of you are, aren't you?" In fact it is the head girl that the chaplain is interested in.

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."

Peter and Tamsin make an unlikely partnership and Peter remembers how in previous cases "Tamsin had given him more grief than the actual murderers. The murderers usually turned out to be rather pleasant people - something which could not be said of his niece." Tamsin's boss, Chief Inspector Wonder, understandably does not understand why this strange monk should be involved in the case but Peter outmanoeuvres him and, after a second murder, and a spirited performance of impersonating a drunk, ends up by not only solving the case but identifying the school "ghost".

It is very unlikely story but an amusing one with a host of eccentric characters. As usual there is rather too much jumping around from one set of characters to another and this is particularly annoying as the story reaches its climax. But it makes an entertaining read.

The Indecent Death of a Madam (2017)
The Indecent Death of a Madam Is another extraordinary story involving (four years retired) Abbot Peter and his niece, Inspector Tamsin Shah. This time they get involved with
the Stormhaven Etiquette Society, a secretive and exclusive club that is said to legitimize "snobbery, disdain and disgust", particularly with reference to Model Services, the town's up-market brothel that prides in being the very model of discretion. Lurking in the background, on the seafront is the sinister desolate shell of Bybuckle Asylum, that had once housed over seven hundred mental patients. What brings these three together is a cold-blooded execution. For lying dead in the empty asylum, tied to an old metal bed frame, is Rosemary Weller, an apparent pillar of the establishment who had nursed Peter forty years before, when, as a student at Oxford, he had been admitted to a mental unit after violently interrupting a sermon in church by protesting,"You're talking crap ... This isn't true." But is she really the saintly character that she seemed to be? And why had she named Peter as her next-of-kin?

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)
Another Bloody Retreat Is really the first book in the series as it takes us back to Abbot Peter's time at St James-the-Less, a small fragile community in the hot sands of Middle Egypt w
hich Peter has been sent to close: "Bypassed by history, it had staggered on gamely until, finally, somebody had noticed it ... and decided that, all things considered, it was better closed down." But it been there for 1600 years and somehow Peter never gets round to closing it in the many years that he spent there.

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.
"But what else would I do? I'm really not qualified for much else." However, in the end he tells her, "I'll leave when finally I cease to fire the sharp dart of longing love at the dark clouds of unknowing ... The kingdom of God is within, Carol. This is the truth. But were that ever to be replaced by the grim morality of rule and belief, then I would ... close the door behind me ... and never return."

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."
"Indeed it was," agreed Peter, who was "overwhelmed by this tedious collusion with lazy lies. Sometimes I wish I did not see people so clearly. It is a dubious gift, but we have gone too far for me to turn back now." But Sankrat's sheer disbelief ("no eternity, no soul, abbot ... No point to your silly religious games") has " led bare my long-denied emptiness" and made him question his own faith. Nevertheless, their encounters are eventually to affect both of them, as Sankrat shows that even he is capable of an act of kindness and Peter recognises that "the good thing about other people and their concerns is that they distract me from myself." Right at the end. he can feel "a sense of completion."

It makes an interesting and arresting story, told with humour, but raising real issues of religious belief.

The author has his own website that includes more about the Enneagram.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


A Vicar Crucified cover
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.
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