It is a commonplace that no crime writer is ever going to be considered for a major literary award such as the Booker. Whether this is strictly true or not might be debatable, but in practice it is hard to dispute. However, it has to be acknowledged that some crime writers consistently produce novels every bit as well written as those that do go on to harvest the glittering prizes and that a smaller sub-set of those authors also deal with topics as demanding of society’s serious concern as any Booker, Costa or Orange winner. One of these is William Brodrick, the monk, turned lawyer, turned novelist, who first came to notice with his debut novel The Sixth Lamentation and then secured his claim to be considered as one of our finest writers with his third novel A Whispered Name.
Having already considered such issues as how we should approach those considered guilty of war crimes committed over fifty years ago and the fate of young soldiers condemned to death for desertion during the First World War, in this, his fifth novel, Brodrick turns his attention to the question of mercy killing and then expands his focus to ask whether or not taking the life of an individual could ever be considered acceptable even if it could be proved that one death would save the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, possibly millions of others.
Brodrick’s protagonist has taken the opposite path to that of his creator. Having started out as a lawyer, Anselm is now a friar in the Gilbertine House of Larkwood. When his Prior receives an anonymous letter suggesting that a young woman, both paralysed and suffering from terminal cancer, has been helped to her death and that her husband may well be about to take his own life, Anselm is released from his monastic duties to see if he can get to the bottom of what exactly happened on the day Jennifer Henderson died and thereby prevent any further damage being done to what is already a fractured family. Jennifer, a rising star with the Royal Ballet has given up her vocation to marry a man her parents heartily dislike and who soon proves to be far more interested in pursuing a media career than attending to his wife and child. With a disintegrating marriage to cope with Jennifer goes back to the world of dance to teach some of the local children only to have an accident that leaves her paralysed and the first suggestions that she would prefer to take matters into her own hands and die via assisted suicide come from her even before she is diagnosed with cancer. However, as Anselm says
killing is always complicated [and] people’s preferences about dying complicate matters even more.
When Jennifer does die, while the law accepts that it was as a result of the cancer, there is concern on the part of at least the anonymous letter writer that Jennifer had changed her mind and that her death came about at the hands of a murderer.
Exploring what has happened takes Anselm and his collaborator, Mitch, into the heart of a deeply disturbed family. Emma and Michael, Jennifer’s parents, make it clear that they have no love at all for Peter and would do anything to keep their grandson Timothy, away from the influence of his father. Equally they have no familial feelings left for Nigel and Helen, Michael’s brother and sister-in-law, and it is in getting to the bottom of this dispute that Anselm begins to understand something of the ‘disease’ that is at the root of the malaise within Jennifer’s wider family.
For, while the immediate concern may be with the question of assisted suicide, Brodrick uses Michael’s service with the SAS in Northern Ireland, to widen the debate and ask whether or not there can ever be justification for the killing of an individual even if by so doing you might save the lives of many more people. If the opportunity arises to execute the one man who seems to stand in the way of a negotiated solution, should you take it? Would it have been acceptable for someone to have shot Hitler in 1939? Brodrick allows all sides of this argument breathing space, exploring through Peter and Mitch the notion that a hard and rigid sense of what is morally acceptable doesn’t always answer to the justice of a situation, while allowing the old monk, Bede, to voice some of the counter arguments,
I think well-meaning people got sucked away from a simple understanding of right and wrong. Thought the rules didn’t match the situation on the ground, so they dumped ’em. Believed they could act outside of the law for the sake of the greater good. I think the fishermen forgot that one day the lion would lie down with the lamb and that the sheep would be separated from the goats… There are rules, Anselm. You can’t just forget them and run. They make the world go round.
And if, in the end he comes to a conclusion that I can’t agree with, I can at least respect the thoroughness with which he explores all the possibilities.
I throughly enjoyed this novel and can’t recommend it too highly. There is just one other aspect to what Brodrick explores that I want to mention because I think it is interesting in the light of the fact that whatever else we have here it is impossible to deny that there is, among other influences, a religious discussion going on. Several times the author brings up the question of grace. At first it is just a passing mention.
Michael felt responsible for Jenny’s fall. …He’d wanted Jenny to dance again because from her first tentative steps, he’d been at her side … and being there had taken him faraway from the ugly universe of brutal, heartless movements. He’d found some grace in a graceless world and he wanted it back
but this is later expanded on as Anselm speaks of
the grace that we all come to long for … once we realise that we’ve lost it for ever.
Grace, of course, has more than one meaning. It is generally used to describe an elegance of movement but it is also a concept within the Christian tradition that refers to the unconditional love of God. Brodrick’s use of the term reminds me of the way in which Philip Pullman explores the concept of grace in His Dark Materials where he too is focusing on the notion of the grace of an individual that is cut down and consequently destroys their peace of mind. But, in his case, it is the growing awareness of self-consciousness and society’s imposition of the concept of original sin that damages the young life forever. His message is undoubtedly anti-religious whereas Brodrick stands on the side of God. I’m sure there is more going on here with the double meaning of the word grace, but I need to do some deeper thinking about it. But then, isn’t that the mark of a really good novel, that it leaves you with more on your mind than it found you with?