Monday, December 21, 2015

Anne Emery. Cecilian Vespers

     Anne Emery. Cecilian Vespers (2009) Reinhold Schellenberg, a German priest attending a course on sacred music dies of semi-decapitation. Who killed him, and why? That’s the mystery, but Emery’s real interest is the fallout from Vatican II, in which Schellenberg played a small but crucial role. To judge from the book, she’s a devout Catholic who knows her history and theology. A good deal of the talk is about sacred music, the changes in the liturgy, and the theological and spiritual effects of those changes. She doesn’t pass up opportunities for satire, generally quite mild, but she really doesn’t like the feel-good, me-focussed self-congratulatory piety expressed in much modern church music. The course leader, Brennan Burke, detests this religiosity. He’s a priest of the old school liturgically and theologically. He’s the most complex character in the book.
     The narrator, Monty Collins, is like Emery herself a lawyer, but he doesn’t ring quite true. She needs a male narrator, a woman wouldn’t have the same kind of friendship with a priest, and hence access to information about the suspects. He’s recently separated from his wife who’s borne a child with an unnamed lover. He’s remained on polite terms with his wife, and loves his children. There’s a hint he’ll take to the bastard that’s been foisted on him; maybe in a the next book.
     But the narrator hasn’t enough inner life to make him fully believable. Not that it matters, the focus is on conversation. That conversation is always interesting, revealing character as well as the facts that fit and don’t fit the narrative which will solve the puzzle. The solution is a last-minute revelation of the facts needed to explicate the hints planted earlier. I didn’t like it much, I prefer a richer mix of relevant and irrelevant details than Emery provides. Maybe Emery wrote a wider-ranging, more rambling story, but had to cut it to fit a price point.
     Emery is really far more interested in her characters, in their back stories, their past relationships, the effects of social and psychological traumas they endured, how politics leads us into choices we would rather not make. She knows that ideas have consequences. Discovering the murderer means discovering the motivations of the innocent as well as the guilty. Motivation comes from our desires, but it’s shaped and directed by our beliefs.
     A good read, but not to everyone’s taste, I think. **½

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