Saturday, April 14, 2012

You Reap What You Sow...

WARNING: This review contains a potential spoiler in that I give away something that does not happen when I hoped it would. However, it was impossible to describe my disappointment without this revelation. The reader is warned, but it's something that should have been obvious.
The Reverend Otis Joy is a very, very wicked man. Indeed, his bishop, one Marcus Glastonbury, discovers that Joy has been embezzling funds from the Church of England systematically, and there is a deficit of about £15,000. But Marcus Glastonbury wants to ensure there is no public scandal involving the church, and so he makes a fatal mistake. The bishop neglects to tell anyone of his plan visit to Otis Joy, coming more-or-less-inconspicuously on his day off. And so, Otis Joy seizes his opportunity and murders the bishop, making the whole thing look like a suicide. To add credibility to this theory, he makes the bishop look like a sex pervert who jumped into a quarry because of shame.

It’s a jolly start to the story in Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper, and as we soon find out, Otis Joy is not only an embezzler but also a serial killer. People who inconvenience him have a nasty habit of dropping dead and things are no different at his current parish in Foxford. But the police scoff at these stories, shared in the pub: after all, how could a man go and tell his congregation to live their life one way, and then turn around and do something completely different himself? Otis Joy is a man of the cloth: how could he be a serial killer?

And while, as a whole, The Reaper is a fairly enjoyable experience, it has some very serious flaws. Perhaps I’m the one to blame, because I set my expectations very high on the story when, after a second death, I suddenly realized something about the story. I was expecting this to turn out to be a detective story disguised as an “inverted” murder mystery—for, apart from the death of the bishop, we never actually see Otis murder anyone... and the author never explicitly tells us that Otis is the man behind these mysterious deaths! Immediately my nasty mind set to work, devising ingenious theories left and right… but I might as well have spared myself the effort. Otis is indeed a serial killer as the product description claims, and having this confirmed at the book’s end was rather an anti-climax. Can't you just imagine Anthony Berkeley using a similar plot scenario and delivering a dazzling detective story in disguise? It requires one extra creative push, and I was expecting it... but its failure to arrive was the source of one of my major disappointments. Then again, maybe I should have expected as much...

That wasn’t my only problem with the ending, though. I also felt it was distinctly rushed. The first two acts had a nice, leisurely pace to them that made for pleasurable reading. The portrait of village life was wonderful, and we see how Otis Joy’s presence morally corrupts one of his parishioners, Rachel Jansen, who begins to desire the young vicar more and more… It was very nicely done and the pace was ideal. Then in the third act, after some determined poking around by a certain character, the police do a complete about-face. All throughout the novel they have scoffed and scoffed at the stories—but when given a certain piece of evidence (which they themselves admit is far from conclusive) they suddenly side with those who denounce Otis as a serial killer. And then, through sheer stupidity and incompetence… I won’t even hint what happens. But I must say it was a major letdown.

One last quibble: the Church of England is really treated most unfairly. I’m a stubborn Papist myself, but I’m pretty sure the Church of England is not like the institution in this novel. We do not get a single decent character from the church. There’s an embezzler and part-time murderer, and a bishop who seems more interested in money than in the church itself… But where are the good priests and nuns who do good deeds? I know such people exist from personal experience, mad as the concept may seem, and it bothers me to see some poor stereotypes of what people think religious people are like. It just doesn’t ring true.

That being said, the book is fairly enjoyable as a read. There are some really great standout scenes, like the maddest funeral procession I’ve ever read about, and the vicar’s sermons on Sundays are rather fun as well (it’s as if he’s been writing these sermons for weeks in advance!). And there is a nice touch of mystery for much of the book, as Otis Joy takes Tuesdays off but nobody knows where he disappears to on those days. (The resolution is not fairly-clued, however, and feels rather random… but it’s an acceptable enough resolution.) I liked the way a certain character persists in digging for the truth at all costs, getting plenty of flack for his anti-vicar stance.

But despite all the fun stuff about this novel, it remains a fairly flawed work. As an inverted mystery goes, it’s merely average. The major problem with it is that its problems are concentrated in the last act. And consequently, much of the enjoyability of the first two acts seems negated by the disappointment of the third.

6 comments:

  1. I liked most of this book as you might imagine, but I agree about the rushed anticlimactic ending. It's meant to be a satire and therefore the presence of all the nasty characters.

    There is also a novel called CLERICAL ERROR (originally published as THE VICAR'S EXPERIMENT) which tells the story of another wicked and murderous religious leader who acts according to his own rules and justifies them as the will of God. It came years before this book. Have no idea if Lovesey is familiar with it. The book is by C.E. Vulliamy who wrote under the pseudonym "Anthony Rolls." You can find it under the punny title by Vulliamy and under the Vicar title by Rolls. I enjoyed that one as well. The main difference with Vulliamy's book is that is indeed an inverted detective novel and not a manipulated one as in the case of Lovesey's.

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  2. Oh, of course I understand that this meant to be satire, John, but I have a very personal reason for disliking poor stereotypes of religious people. It's something of a long story, but it never fails to get my blood boiling when I think of it.

    Curt actually has brought this up on the Facebook group, but Peter apparently told him that he was not familiar with the book.

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  3. I have not read this book myself, but I can understand your disappointment over the conclusion of the book. Anthony Berkeley spoiled us with detective stories disguised as an inverted mysteries and you sort of come to expect to see a glimmer of that ingenuity reflected in the works of others, which is, unfortunately, not always the case. But if you want to experience a good, modern attempt at such a story I recommend the Columbo episode Last Salute to the Commodore. The construction is a bit different from Berkeley's, though, but I loved watching Columbo as a whodunit complete with a final drawing room scene.

    On the subject of stereotypical religious characters, I have to agree with you on the fact that not everyone who belongs to a religion is condemned to a life of crime and debauchery, of course not, but you have to admit that organized religion has a sizeable chip on its shoulders and have not exactly been a paragon of virginal innocence.

    I won't hammer on the issues of child abuse in the church and their stance on condoms in Africa, as they are, apparently, considers as cheap shots, but just as bad, IMHO, is the stifling of progress – like opposing gay marriage and stem cell research. Another example is that the religious parties over here would love to take away euthanasia from me, a non-religious person, as an option were I ever diagnosed with a terminal illness. No idea if I would actually use it, but I am glad there's an option that I can decide when its time to go and not a lump of deceased cells.

    And then there are the kind of zealots who approach you in the street (or rang your doorbell on a Saturday morning) only to inform you (a complete stranger) that you are A) evil to the core B) will burn in hell. That should teach me for having a different outlook on life, the universe and everything. I have to agree with them on one point, though: I am evil. But not because I lack faith. I'm evil because I laugh at people who almost shattered a few bones on an icy driveway before extending a helping hand. But all kidding aside, I hope you can understand (from where you are standing) how enraging this gets after a while.

    Wow, this has become quite a diatribe (which wasn't planned), but I had to get this off my chest when you said that it didn't ring through. It was perhaps a bit one-sided but an embezzler and part-time killer sounds like a PR-dream compared to what came (and still is coming) to surface. And this meant to be satire, so I wouldn't be too annoyed if I were you.

    By the way, what's keeping you from reading Gladys Mitchell's St. Peter's Finger? You would love it. Heck, even this heathen thoroughly approves of this book! ;)

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  4. TomCat, you are of course right that religious organizations are not 100% innocent. There has been much corruption, and like any regular human being I am opposed to that. But from my perspective as a practising Catholic, religion does not try to stifle me, but it asks of me that I grow up, mature, learn to accept responsibilities, admit to my mistakes, and love other people the way they are. But judging a religion based *solely* on its history is idiotic and I *HATE* it when people do that. Yes, let's sit here and talk about the Spanish Inquisition and how that makes the Church so evil... It's akin to calling Canadians demons because of the regrettable action of our government during WWII in the deportation of Japanese citizens... or forcing Aboriginals into residential schools... or hell, the Somalia incident. Does it make Canada the whore of Satan? Not at all-- these events cannot be hidden and should be used to make sure such evil is never *ever* again repeated.

    With the sex abuse scandals, the Catholic Church has done more than any other organization in removing pedophilia from its ranks. One child abuse case is one too many, and the Church has made it more difficult to become a priest, to the point that the young men in seminaries these days have to have a burning desire to achieve the priesthood. They will make excellent priests-- I know a few of these fellows and I am excited for the parishes that will one day get them. But this doesn't stop people from using the "priests rape boys" jokes over and over again-- even though statistically, it is complete bullsh*t, if you will pardon my French.

    But of course there are controversial questions, but I find they often stem from misunderstanding. The issue of gay marriage is one that I think both sides misunderstand. For years, marriage has become treated as nothing more than a piece of paper, and you should move on once you get bored. And this has led to such stupidities as marrying yourself and marrying buildings (!!!). (And who can forget the sanctity of Britney Spears' 55 hour marriage, or Kim Kardashian's recent one?) But when I speak of marriage as a Catholic, I'm talking of a Sacrament-- of a sacred institution between man and wife whose purpose is starting a family and weathering it through thick and thin, even if the lovey-dovey feeling of happiness doesn't last. And that's just the most basic way of saying it-- some of the most fascinating books ever written cover the topic of male and female sexuality and how it brings one closer to God, such as the late John Paul II's "Theology of the Body". So although both sides use the same words, they amount to completely different meanings.

    Ignorance exists everywhere, though, on both sides. I frequently feel superior to other people, but I have better reasons than just someone's religion, sexuality, race, etc. In a world as diverse as ours, different religious traditions must be respected. I am happy to respect your religious background as long as you respect mine-- I draw the line when it turns into hateful ignorance.

    Now, all this probably seems like a stupid reason to get irritated over poor religious stereotypes, but I *do* have a personal reason for despising such portraits of religious people. It is a long story and an intensely personal one, but it's one that almost-literally makes my blood boil.

    But as for Mitchell's book-- nothing is stopping me. But nothing is stopping me from reading DO EVIL IN RETURN or THE DEVIL AT SAXON WALL or THE DEVIL TO PAY or LAMENT FOR A MAKER or THE LAMP OF GOD. It's one of the books in my 2012 Vintage Mystery Challenge... I just haven't gotten to it yet. And for now I will not because I have some exams left. Once they're done my reading schedule will clear up considerably.

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  5. You should like St. Peter's Finger, Patrick, and perhaps her other "nun book," Convent on Styx. They are very respectful (she had a nun sister).

    Yes, I asked Peter about The Reaper when we were corresponding about the detection Club and he said he did not know the book by Rolls/Vulliamy. I thought it might have been a deliberate homage!

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  6. Patrick, I typed, what I thought was a short and quick reply, but it turned into another block of text and since this really isn't the place I decided to send it to your (yahoo) email address – so we can return here to discussing the noble art of crafting detective stories. So, uhm, yeah, watch Last Salute to a Commodore. :)

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