Wednesday, April 02, 2008

My review

Thou Shalt Not Kill - ed. Cynthia Manson
(Tales of ecclesiastical sleuths)

The introduction is brief, but requires a comment. “The darker side of humankind seems all the more sinister when probed by the devout followers of the church.” Really? Why? Maybe I’m coming at the anthology from a more cynical mindset, maybe (fifteen years after the book was published) scandal in the church has become too common to ring much of a chord, but I am dubious of this statement.

“The Dutiful Son” by Ralph McInerny is a mediocre start to this anthology. Father Roger Dowling is drawn into a mystery when a man arrives, stating that his mother buried her infant in the yard of her home and that her dying wish was to have the child re-interred on consecrated ground. What is found in the yard, however, is not a baby – and the unknown man has not died of natural causes. The mystery in this story is interesting enough, with the turns and revelations paced well – relaxed but not plodding. I also enjoyed the portrayal of an old neighborhood where the residents can remember fifty years ago as if it was yesterday. We’ve all known places like this. However, there was minimal emotion and no real tension outside of curiosity. Though Father Roger Dowling acts sympathetic, the story aims at the heartbreak that occurs from the outside and remains there. The fact that the main character is consistently referred to by both names in narration becomes rather wearing; maybe this contributed to the distance.

“The Second Commandment” by Charlotte Armstrong picks up the pace. Minister Hugh Macroy is picked up by the police after his new wife has a tragic accident in the fog – or was it an accident? This story starts at a frenetic tempo, introducing a large number of characters without becoming unmanageable. Through their eyes, we see the facts of the case, their emotions, their biases … a technique which plants a clear picture of the human element. The last ten pages or so slow down to a point that is initially irritating, but I grew used to it as the end drew near. Ultimately, this is not so much a puzzle mystery – where the central point of the story is to piece together clues in search of a solution – as an interesting exploration of the nature of relationships and universal love.

“Straight Down The Middle” by Thomas Adcock is a short, snappy story were the question is not whodunit, but how – how did the diamonds stolen by Danny Esposito vanish into thin air? (Comparisons to “The Purloined Letter” are not inaccurate.) This case is given to any cop who manages to clear their workload, and detective Larry Stein is the next in line. The characters are clever and sketched well, and include an unusual – and very enjoyable – nun. Some of the earlier details tie into the conclusion of the mystery with finesse, and the result is a satisfying ride.

About “Death of an Alumnus” by Janet O’Daniel, let me first say: BASKETBALL NUNS! The story involves the events surrounding the dedication of a new building at St. Margaret’s Home, as seen through the eyes of the redoubtable Sister Maureen, whose tongue-in-cheek internal commentary is hysterical. (And yes, she did coach basketball at the Home in her younger days.) It takes a while for this story to get to the murder, but the portrayal of the chaos surrounding the dedication and the relationship between the home’s former children and their teachers is written so well that at least this reader didn’t mind. Perhaps in consequence, it seemed that the mystery wrapped up too suddenly, without sufficient reinforcement. However, the way in which Sister Maureen’s Ideas about the participants propels the solution is supremely enjoyable. To quote the back of the book, this lady is “second to nun.”

“The Price of Light” by Ellis Peters is a small dose of the shrewd brother Cadfael, and is written with Peters’ customary artistry and eye for character. When Hamo FitzHamon decides to secure his place in heaven by a donation to the Abbey, he does so with a lavish gift intended to impress his generosity on all who see it: a pair of gorgeous silver candlesticks. When these, inevitably, vanish, the hunt is on, and it is Cadfael who must seek out the truth. The human element is key to this story, with questions of motive and strength of character brought to the fore. One moving element is Brother Jordan, whose failing eyes make him treasure the gift of light. I am biased because I adore Cadfael to bits, but this was a great, solid story. My only criticism is that there were some passages that were written with unusual clumsiness – I had to read them a couple times to understand what was being portrayed.

“A Face to Remember” by Mary Amlaw is a satisfying inverted mystery, in which we see the crime committed – and its motivation – and the enjoyment of the story is derived from seeing how the sleuth solves it. In this case, the “detective” is Mother Mary Dominic, a woman of many dimensions. When a reformed prostitute dies just before she can join the order, it is up to Mary Dominic to solve the crime using the resources at her disposal. This story uses the inverted formula very well, and the idiosyncracies of the nuns are fun to read. I particularly enjoyed how the Mother provides the solution in a way designed to “speak police” and hence convince the authorities of what she already knows.

“The Man in the Passage” by G.K. Chesterton is a story of superlatives and leading luminaries, all described to a final purpose that I’m not sure was effective. Actress Aurora Rose is called upon by two prominent men, arousing the jealousy of her co-star – and Father Brown is a quiet witness to the events that unfold. The murder is telegraphed – you know who is going to die – and preceded by a redundant double explanation of how the soon-to-be victim intends to send the other men out of the room so she can speak to the Father. Brown plays a fairly minor part in the story despite his role as its detective, and I can’t but feel he fades into the woodwork around the other sensational people.

“Justina” by Dorothy Salisbury Davis is … a strange story, and one which I am not entirely sure even qualifies for the spirit of this anthology, although it fulfills the letter – more or less. The mysterious nun Sister Justina is invited into the Willoughby by Mrs. Ryan, toting two shopping bags. When she leaves, she sneaks out and the bags are nowhere to be seen. This small mystery spirals into more serious circumstances. I’m still not entirely sure I know what happened in this story. The two narrators ended up dividing the focus of the story, and I didn’t feel as if either of them had any claim to the title of sleuth.

“In The Confessional” by Alice Scanlan Reach also misses the mark with a conclusion to an interesting premise that leaves unanswered questions and a plothole. This story doesn’t play fair with its reader. It begins with promise, as petty criminal Blue attempts to steal from the church offerings and observes Father Crumlish at his evening routine – a routine which turns out to involve an unplanned confession and some horrifying facts.

“Rumpole and the Man of God” by John Mortimer is a story carried by its narrative voice – the sometimes witty, often dour, always slightly cynical Rumpole of the Bailey. When a vicar is accused of shoplifting six shirts, Rumpole must defend him – while the vicar himself provides no explanation better than, “They just ended up in my basket.” This is interwoven with the story of Rumpole’s friend George and his new fiancee, of whom Rumpole’s wife (She Who Must Be Obeyed) strongly disapproves. As a stand-alone story, this is a good piece of fiction. However, I’m not sure the vicar or his ecclesiastical involvement were central enough to belong to this anthology. Also this story is something of a slice-of-life and it feels open-ended, both finished and not.

Overall, I thought this anthology failed to hit the advertised mark. It bills itself as a collection of stories about ecclesiastical sleuths. Of the ten stories here, in only half is the detective a member of the clergy. In the others, the clergy member is either a side character or the accused. (It should also be mentioned that, since the title is “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” it seems slightly odd that murder is not the subject of three of these stories, almost a third.) In some of the stories, the promised melding of clergy with crime seems to be lip-service. There are also stories where the mystery element is slighted, rushed or (“The Second Commandment”) not really important.

The stories that worked in this anthology, regardless of how well they fit the theme, were those that emphasized the role of the ecclesiastical worker in a defined community, and often how that role propelled them into the task of sleuthing. In those stories, it is the careful haven constructed by church devotees that is threatened and disrupted. Ultimately, I would have liked to see more of this.

In the end, I thought four of the stories were excellent (“Straight Down The Middle,” “Death of an Alumnus,” “The Price of Light” and “A Face to Remember”) – and these had the misfortune of being sequential. I thought two more were good (“The Second Commandment,” “Rumpole and the Man of God”) and two more were passable (“The Dutiful Son”, “The Man in the Passage”). The remaining two (“Justina,” “In The Confessional”), I wish I had skipped. The anthology is worth reading for the first four, but expect that it isn’t quite as billed.

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