The Discourtesy of Death is the fifth novel in Matthew Brodrick’s Father Anselm series in which Anselm, the barrister turned monk, takes on an investigation into the death of a famed ballet dancer. Did she die of the bowel cancer that was bound to take her in a few months time anyway, or was she helped to her grave by a concerned (or perhaps malicious) relative?
I have never read a Father Anselm novel before and was pleased to find that enough background material was provided in the earlier chapters for me to pick up his back-story without any difficulty. In this book, we see Anselm’s detective work receive a broader commission from his Prior; he is to take the “light of the monastery beyond the enclosure wall” by taking on cases “from anyone who contacts you, particularly regarding those who are on the margins of hope”.
Soon Father Anselm finds himself deeply involved with the families of two brothers, one of whom, Michael, is the bereaved father of the ballet dancer. Why is Michael on a mission with a Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol? And what does his brother Nigel know about this? Michael had to confront his own demons while serving with the Army in Northern Ireland as an intelligence officer and still bears the scars resulting from terrible decisions he had to make while combating the IRA. Is history repeating himself as he seeks the alleged killer of his daughter? Will Father Anselm be able to move the case forward quickly enough to prevent another disaster from happening?
Novels like this depend on good characters – it’s no good just having a clever story, the reader has to believe in the people involved. I found Father Anselm a wholly credible character and very much enjoyed reading about the relationship he has with his trusty side-kick, aging jazz-man Mitch Robson. Mitch is a valuable companion who occasionally confounds Anselm with his “outside the box” ideas which yield up rich rewards in new information.
I also liked the way the novel explored the themes of mercy killing and even the bigger theme about whether it right to kill someone such as Adolf Hitler in order to avoid the murders of millions later? With William Brodrick’s background as a monk, then a barrister, he shows himself highly qualified to bring such complex themes into his novels. Through the flash-backs to Michael’s career in Northern Ireland, the author forces us to ask our own questions, what would we do if the only way to bring peace is to murder the IRA officer who is presents the biggest obstacle to the peace process.
The books are definitely not “thrillers” but are more in the classic English detective mould. Father Anselm is an undemonstrative and thoughtful figure who is in his element when grappling with weighty moral dilemmas. Maybe a television series will follow – Ellis Peters’ fictional monk Brother Cadfael led to a long-running series and Father Anselm has a similar appeal.
I always enjoy it when novels are set in real places with identifiable locations. The descriptions of Southwold and Aldeburgh make the places instantly recognisable to anyone who has been there. I wonder if there will be a Father Anselm trail in future tourist board brochures? William Brodrick’s charming descriptions of the little towns and villages of Suffolk would certainly make that possible.
Altogether a highly readable and enjoyable novel. I am a great fan of classic English detective novels by writers like Ruth Rendell, Frances Fyfield etc. I am delighted to have discovered a writer of similar class in William Brodrick and I now look forward to delving into the previous four Father Anselm novels.
About the author: William Brodrick was a monk in an Augustinian Friary between the ages of 19 and 24. He then left his order to enter the legal profession where he became a barrister defending violent criminals. An interview in the Sydney Morning Herald suggests that his legal career introduced Brodrick to the ordinary, more human side of people who had done bad things: ”I saw in these people who’d committed extreme acts of violence, a person with a cup of coffee and a broken life”, which proved to be the perfect training for writing such characters in his books.
His books always feature complex moral dilemmas and I wonder how much his interest in these stems from his family background – his mother joined the Dutch resistance and helped smuggle Jews out of Amsterdam and his grandfather, a Lutheran pastor, died in a Japanese concentration camp. Whatever his influences, William Brodrick’s writing is thoughtful and restrained perfectly reflecting the qualities of his main character Father Anselm.