Andrea West

(creator: Pamela Cranston)

Pamela Cranston
Andrea West is a graduate student who was "soon to become Professor of Anglican studies and theology at the Graduate Theological Union" in Berkeley, California. She earns her PhD during the course of the story.

She is remembered by her new boyfriend, Keith Carlton, for "her shoulder-length wavy, black hair, her high forehead and sculpted cheekbones, her remarkable nose, her ivory skin, her large, brown, almond-shaped eyes framed under gracefully arched black eyebrows, her full, passionate lips, centred over a firm chin. He loved how one half of her face sometimes seemed about to break out in mirth while the other half looked so solemn and grave. Under her academic exterior, he sensed there was something wild and exotic inside her." But perhaps he was a little biased. He doesn't mention that she wore glasses.

Her mother, who had fled from Russia in 1922 and eventually settled in California, had married the American Sam West who had not approved of her Russian Orthodox faith. In the early 70s Andrea had attended Stanford University where she had met and fallen in love with Michael Beech who had since become 'the rising star of the San Francisco art world". It was while she was with him in Ravenna that the great sixth century mosaics gave her "her first inkling that there might be a God who believed in her, even though she didn't believe in Him". And she found that "she could smell holiness - or - evil like the smell of sun-drenched sheets or conversely, rotten eggs."

But Beech had left her, preferring to go off with a man. Aged 26, she had started "graduate school at Christ Church Oxford studying theology". There she had met Gareth Williams, an ex-Anglican monk and had married him, but they had divorced when he chose to return to monastic life.

About her faith she says, "I believe in God, but I am no fundamentalist ... I think biblical criticism is very important, but it has to be balanced with devotion and a healthy mysticism ... There is nothing worse than excessive rationalism; it petrifies the soul." But, at the start of the story, "While she still believed in God intellectually, she feared that she had lost her faith". And she is in some trouble with her seminary Dean because a student had accused her of "promoting something akin to satanism" - an accusation which she claimed was "pure nonsense".

The Rev Pamela Cranston, born in New York City and raised in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts. was formerly an Anglican Franciscan nun. She majored in Russian History and Journalism in college, and ultimately received her BA in Interdisciplinary Social Science from San Francisco State University in 1984. She received a Master of Divinity degree in 1988 from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1990. Since then she has served churches and hospices in the San Francisco Bay area, where she lives with her husband. She regularly returns to the Adirondacks which she has known and loved since childhood.She is a poet and a writer whose work has appeared in many publications. The Madonna Murders is her first novel.

The Madonna Murders (2003)
The Madonna Murders is a story involving the world of icons (particularly the Russian Icon of Kazan, priceless not only for the gold and precious jewels covering its surface, but also for its miraculous powers), the struggle between the holy and the demonic, and the Russian history of San Francisco. When Andrea West, about to become a theology professor in Berkeley, California, agrees to examine the famous Icon of Kazan for signs of forgery, she is plunged headlong into a tangled plot of blackmail, murder, and evil. A ritual murder sends her on the trail of the killers which leads to the shadowy Inner Circle - a group of Russian aristocrats and shady art dealers who will do anything to steal the icon. It all builds up to a rather unlikely and melodramatic climax, but by then Andrea has found not only a lover but her real father.

It makes a fast-paced and quite an interesting story that is told with some humor. Its strength lies not in the machinations of its improbable plot, but in Andrea's own relationships such as those with her new boyfriend (the ever-persistent reporter Keith Carlton) and her priestly confessors, and its introduction to the world of icons, which, it is explained, "are supposed to be windows to heaven. The fifth dimension, if you will." The scenes they depict can "look weird, not because heaven is warped, but because we are. It is a visual attempt to show how skewed our perspective is compared to the reality of Grace". The story is given added depth, too, by the quotes from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's Meditations: a Spiritual Journey that appear at the start of every chapter.

A legendary old "Crystal Skull", together with the woman who used its (black) magical powers to see what other characters were doing in her absence, and whose vocation was to embrace the Dark, contribute to the melodramatic feel of the plot, which gets much more convincing when describing Andrea's very real fears and worries. The way that Alex Menshikov, one of the suspected villains, keeps turning up in unexpected places and manages to bug all of Andrea's conversations at her home, lacks conviction too. And it gets a little tedious when either he or another villain seems able to follow Andrea or Keith wherever they go. It soon comes as no surprise when "a green Mercedes parked half a block from the church waited a few minutes then sped after her". Nor is it easy to take too seriously a threatening note "typed with capital letters" that " screamed from the white page, BANG, BANG YOU'RE DEAD".

But characters like the holy Father Seraphim who lives as a hermit really come to life. It is he who tells Andrea, " When you look at an icon, you are not looking at it. Rather it is looking at you. It follows the movement of your heart, cleans it, spreads it open and aims it towards God. Icons are not meant to stir the emotions or reason, like secular art or music, but rather to guide our hearts, our minds and bodies to their true purpose: transfiguration." And he looks kindly at her: "You are are too much in a hurry to become a saint, but you don't want to sacrifice anything to become one".

She feels that he has seen right through her, and can only wish that she might "reflect the same kind of obvious tender joy that he had. She ached for it like she had never ached for anything else on earth." She is a character it would be good to meet again.

There is little about the author on the web.

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The Madonna Murders cover
The arresting cover shows the Icon of Kazan which is very relevant to the story, and provides a most useful illustration.
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