1920s, book review, Catholic Church, confessional privilege, Cora Harrison, cultural divisions, historical fiction, Ireland, mystery fiction, prejudice, stilted characters, suspicion, The Troubles, tradition
Review: Beyond Absolution, by Cora Harrison
Severn, 2017. 249 pp. $29
Cork, 1923. Father Dominic, a much-loved Capuchin friar, is found dead in the confessional at Holy Trinity Church. Someone has killed him with a weapon thin enough to pass through the grille separating penitent from confessor, and sharp and long enough to penetrate his brain through his listening ear. Reverend Mother Aquinas, who runs a convent school and knows everyone in Cork, grew up friends with Father Dominic and his brother, Lawrence, also in holy orders. Though respectful of Inspector Patrick Cashman, the detective assigned to the case, and aware that solving the murder is his job, the Reverend Mother brings her keen faculties and web of contacts to bear, hoping to aid the overworked inspector.
The first question is whether the late priest had heard too much–and, given how he died, the metaphor is inescapable. But the secrets of the confessional are never divulged, so there was no chance that Father Dominic betrayed a confidence and paid for it. Nevertheless, shortly before his death, he visited an up-and-coming antique shop and saw something there that agitated him. Since he was no collector–couldn’t be, considering his vow of poverty–why he went there raises more questions than it answers. What’s more, the owner of the antique shop, Peter Doyle, has a little explaining to do. Witnesses say they saw him at Holy Trinity at the time of the murder; but he says he wasn’t, and since he’s Protestant, he had no reason to go there.
However, there’s something about him that doesn’t quite square. A theatrical group that he runs, which is preparing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, contains a raft of people who seem to have plenty of money to spend, no matter what their occupation. What connection that has to the murder is anyone’s guess, but suffice to say that every cast member of the Mikado becomes a suspect. But what motive would they have to kill a much-loved priest?
Then again, no one is entirely beloved, and Father Dominic ventured into prisons to give the sacraments to incarcerated IRA soldiers. The agreement made the previous year to grant Ireland independence, minus the six northern counties, has pleased practically nobody, and the violence continues. Accordingly, the priest’s death becomes a political issue, as do the religious affiliations and family lineages of almost every character in the novel.
I like this aspect of Beyond Absolution. Harrison re-creates the mutual suspicion and prejudice that crops up in or lies beneath the surface of every human transaction. She betrays the loyalties to client, faith, class, or brand of nationalism and how they seep through life and color how people make decisions. You see divisions within the police, the educational system, and the church. Since the dominant ethic seems to be based on tradition, fear, and suspicion, you get the feeling that the sensitive, forward-thinking characters–the Reverend Mother, Inspector Cashman, and a few others–are trying to hold back the ocean. In another nice touch, the Reverend Mother once taught Cashman, so she has a personal stake in wanting him to succeed; likewise, she can recall how several other characters behaved as students of hers.
Gossip is the grease that makes this world go round, and even the telephone calls may not be private, as the Reverend Mother well knows:
There were, she supposed, other countries where the exchange operators took a number in silence and put you through, preserving an air of total anonymity about the process, but here in the city of Cork, that would have been considered discourteous. In Cork, it was assumed that everyone knew everyone else’s business. And the telephone exchange women did their best to add to that common pool of knowledge. Sensible people, keeping this in mind, spent the first minutes exchanging remarks about the weather and the state of the streets before moving on to matters that were more private.
As for the mystery, Harrison tells her story well and keeps you guessing–at least about most things. It’s a little too easy to tell the good guys and bad guys apart–as with Peter Doyle, the characterizations can be one-sided–and the antique-store crowd are a bad lot, which narrows the field quite a bit. You may not guess the killer’s identity, but the motive quickly becomes obvious. Sometimes, Harrison clumsily introduces facts she wants you to know or character background. At those moments, I felt I was being Told Something Important rather than being allowed to discover it naturally.
Still, I appreciate Harrison’s skill at re-creating an era, and I applaud her decision not to try to clean it up. The Troubles were a very violent time, and she gives a glimpse of why.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.