Archive for the ‘Mysteries’ Category

Odd Thomas
by Dean Koontz
Bantam Books, 2006


Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz was a joyful find.  Most fiction that can be labeled Catholic is literary, that is fairly highbrow.  Thus it tends to reach a narrow audience, and its influence is slim.  But Dean Koontz is a best selling author of fiction, mostly in the genres of thriller and horror.  Rarely does one find “secular” fiction told from a Catholic worldview.  In Odd Thomas there are a few Catholic trappings — a minor character is a priest, one scene takes place in a church, etc.  But it is the worldview of the story which makes it Catholic.  For instance, evil does exist in the world and there are forces of darkness walking among us — some physical, some spiritual.  Second, sexual relations are sacred and belong in a committed, monogamous (even married!) relationship.  Third, we have all be given by God — even the simplest and weakest of us — a gift with which we must serve Him.  If we do not, we cannot find peace.  Fourth, living is hard work.  We are walking through a valley of tears.  But our reward in heaven — union with those we love — will be great.  Finally, death touches us all, but love endures forever.  Odd Thomas is the first of a series of novels featuring the protagonist Odd (his real first name) whose gift from God is to see the dead (including Elvis).  The dead don’t speak, but they manage to communicate with Odd that they need justice before they can cross over.  Odd, a mere fry cook in a diner, works with the chief of the Pico Mundo Police and the dead and sacrifices everything to protect the living.


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Mystic River
by Dennis Lehane
William Morrow, 2001
ISBN 9780688163167

Mystic River is a dark, somewhat creepy novel. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops film reviews said of the movie (starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, directed by Clint Eastwood) that is it is “morally unsatisfying.” This is an apt description of the novel as well. All the loose ends are not tied up; not all the good are rewarded; not all the bad are punished. If you like your detective fiction where the detective brings all the suspects into a room, points out the guilty parties who then confess and are met with both appropriate punishment and mercy and order is restored to the world, this book is not for you. If you like your fiction more realistic and gritty, this is definitely a book you will like. Here sin is not ambiguous but the guilt of the sinners is. Here the questions of where does evil come from and how responsible is a man who sins because he himself had been sinned against are raised but not completely answered. This is not great, Pulitizer Prize winning literature, but it is definitely above most best-selling novels. In some places, the language reaches the level of lyrical. Most of the Catholicism in the book is cooincidental to the characters; however, it is always interesting to see Catholics practice their faith in form (go to Mass, participate in the Sacraments) and then move easily into a world dark with sin and wonder how easily would I do the same and what provocation would it take?

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Morbit Taste for BonesA Morbid Taste for Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael
by Ellis Peters
Mysterious Press, 1994
ISBN: 978-0446400152

A great way to handle the stress of the end of the semester is with a nice, short, light, comforting book like one of the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters (pseudonym for Edith Pargeter).  Relaxing with some light reading is a great way to cleanse the mind without deadening it, such as zoning out in front the TV tends to do.  It’s like eating sherbet to cleanse the palette between courses in a gourmet meal.  To prepare for my exams in my undergraduate days, I would insert reading Sherlock Holmes short stories between studying and taking the tests. 


Brother Cadfael is in many ways like Sherlock Holmes.  He uses forensics coupled with a little psychology to solve crimes.  But his forensics is based on clear observation of the natural world around him for during his medieval era there was more suspicion than science when dealing with murder.  As the herbalist of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, Brother Cadfael has a vast knowledge of area flora and fauna as well as rare plants and medicinal practices he brought back from the East.  As a former soldier in the Crusades who entered the monastery when he was forty, he also has a vast knowledge of human nature and its passions.


The Brother Cadfael stories are set during the civil war in England between King Stephen and Empress Maud in the twelfth century.  The Normans only relatively recently occupied England in 1066, and there are a lot of interesting cultural observations of the mixing of the Normans, the Saxons and the Welsh.  Cadfael himself is Welsh but can also speak in English (and one presumes in French since he has many conversations with the Norman nobility).  Peters not only develops the historical ambience of the period, she also re-creates the world of a medieval monastery, and there is much reference to the daily life of the monks including singing the daily Office, offering hospitality to strangers, confessing before the abbot, etc.  She also addresses the political relationship between the monastery and the town which mirrors the relationship between the larger church and the secular government. 


Despite these historical and cultural details, Brother Cadfael himself has a modern sensibility.  Cadfael was a soldier of the Crusades, and he does not regret it, but much emphasis in the stories are on the waste and repetitiveness of war, particularly civil war.  Cadfael also takes a mild view of sexual indiscretions, and although he calls those he counsels to a stricter form of living, it is for their psychological and spiritual health that he is concerned rather than their potential destination in the afterlife. 


Cadfael also takes a modern, somewhat skeptical, view of the accouterments of Catholic spirituality.  In the first book of the series, A Morbid Taste for Bones, Cadfael joins in a pilgrimage to Wales to gather the relics of one Saint Winifred who was martyred there.  Cadfael is asked on the journey because he speaks Welsh, which the Norman Prior Robert does not, not because he has any interest in bones of a young girl.  Prior Robert wants the relics because having them at Shrewsbury Abbey will turn it into a pilgrimage destination with all the fame and money that would entail.  The final major member of the journey is Brother Columbanus, a delicate young monk susceptible to visions and catatonic fits.  The members of the Welsh village do not want to give up their beloved Saint Winifred, but these English monks cannot understand their reluctance.  Soon the leading figure of the opposition to monks winds up dead.  Brother Cadfael eventually brings peace to all concerned, and Saint Winifred becomes his life long patroness even though he cares not at all where her physical bones may actually lie.  To Cadfael, she is always with him, and he returns in prayer for her help many times throughout the series. 


Although the twenty one Cadfael books are developed chronologically, there is no need to read them in any particular order.  Any necessary details from previous stories are seamlessly reintroduced when needed.  Cadfael paperbacks are short, small, easy to carry and available almost anywhere such as area public libraries and used bookstores.


The entry on Cadfael in Wikipedia lists the publication dates as well as the dates of action of the books. 

This site developed by devoted fan Steve C. gives a good deal of background to the books.


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