Father Anselm and the Discourtesy of Death
Mysteries are fiction with a moral concern. Even when they are supposedly light and entertaining, questions about guilt and responsilbity, justice and mercy, right and wrong, remain central to the story. Which is why they are captivating and, dare I say it, important. Because – speaking for myself – it is when I come across something that is both entertaining and serious that I am most profoundly engaged.
Inevitably, then, the investigator in a mystery has a lot of responsibility. He or she must solve the crime. They must set things right. Restore the balance in favour of what is good, against the incursion of evil. But, if they are so inclined, they can also try and make sense of what has happened. Ask the questions we all ask when life gets messy and things swing out of control. And this is what I have tried to do with Father Anselm. Or, to be more precise, this is what Father Anselm has tried to do with me ... because one of the mysteries about writing is that characters tell you who they are and what they’re going to do. They take control and telling their story becomes a kind of willing cooperation. I’d imagined Anselm to be a former lawyer who’d become a monk who is then thrust into situations against his will – and that is who he is – but I only really met him, so to speak, in the books. His concern went beneath the resolution of a given crisis. He tried to bring justice into situations well beyond the reach of the courts. His eye was on the welfare of the perpetrator, too, as well as the victim. He wanted to understand the criminal as much as explain the crime. And so Anselm showed himself to be an investigator with a very personal sort of mission: to try and bring about some redemption, for everyone, here and now, in impossible circumstances.
Having a serious purpose doesn’t mean we can’t have a laugh. Anselm’s home, Larkwood Priory, may be a monastery, but it is populated with characters whose idiosyncrasies overwhelm any gravitas: a self-important archivist who’s permanently indignant, an aged ascetic who never stops talking about the day he met Baden Powell, a retiring guestmaster who is nervous of meeting people. And, of course, there’s Anselm ... a beekeeper who’s never got over the sting issue. Their topsy-turvy existence is one step removed from ordinary life, which gives this particular beekeeper a special vantage point onto the vexed world he left behind. And that brings me to The Discourtesy of Death, Anselm’s first outing with The Overlook Press, for it deals with the vexing question of mercy killing.
Jennifer Henderson was one of those people who knew the meaning of misfortune. A former dancer, she returned to the stage only to fall and break her neck. Paralysed from the chest down and bedridden, she grappled with depression until bowel cancer brought her life to a quick and merciful end. Or at least that’s what everyone believes. The truth could be rather different, because two years after her death, Anselm receives an anonymous letter accusing Peter Henderson, her husband, of her callous murder. So Anselm is drawn into very deep water indeed: was Jenny in fact murdered or was she helped to die? And if she was helped, had she been persuaded or forced to end her life ... because, frankly, it was considered best for everyone involved? Except, perhaps, for Jenny herself. And even then, what was left of Jenny’s life? Was it even worth holding onto, set against the difference it would make to her family if she were to quietly slip away? Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, because unknown to Anselm, Jenny’s father isn’t especially troubled by ethics. He’s set out to execute his daughter’s presumed killer.
The Discourtesy of Death is about the tricky area of choice. It is about how our choices can be tightly woven into other people’s needs and desires ... how our freedom is rarely unencumbered. It’s also a mystery. And, I hope, an entertaining one.