What do we love about a good mystery novel? Ever since Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre of detective fiction in 1841, mystery writers including Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dean Koontz have offered us thrilling crimes and tantalizing clues. We love the puzzle of solving a good burglary or a chilling murder; we love to explain the inexplicable; and we yearn for justice and reason to triumph over the chaos and madness of evil.
Thus it is with joy that we welcome a newcomer to the pantheon of literary detectives. In a line of religious sleuths that includes G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, the Catholic novelist Fiorella de Maria has given us a new monastic investigator: a Benedictine priest named Father Gabriel.
The author writes with a restrained but beautiful style, suited to the quiet countryside village she depicts. She has created endearing and believable monks: old, young, stern or jovial, with friendships and personalities and quirks among them. Father Gabriel himself is gentle, stubborn, inquisitive, and occasionally rankles under that most difficult of all monastic vows, obedience. His faith informs his sleuthing, even if his zeal for investigation leaves him forgetting (at first) to anoint a survivor before examining her wounds for clues. Aware of the limitations of human reason, he prays for insight as the mystery grows darker and more twisted. And he is beautifully human, finding himself—in a refreshing touch by the author—terribly afraid of what he may learn.
De Maria crafts the story well, moving from a beginning tinged with delicate menace to the real horror of the crime and the revelations that ensue. The page-turning novel keeps up the suspense, and offers a satisfying conclusion, leaving us looking forward to more Father Gabriel mysteries.
Because of the violence and thematic engagement with the brutality of war, the novel is more suitable for older teens and adult readers. The violence takes place “offstage,” so to speak, but the depicted aftermath would disturb a younger readership. Likewise, accusations of adultery and the harrowing discussion of Nazi prison camps make this a book for more mature mystery-lovers.
The novel has a few rough edges. The repartee between Gabriel and the predictably obtuse police chief falls a little flat at times. Likewise, at some moments, readers may strain to identify truly individual-sounding voices in the otherwise-clear dialogue. But more serious is a moment of inconsistent narrative technique that occurs early on. For almost the entirety of the novel, the third-person narrator remains tethered or anchored (the literary term is “focalized”) exclusively to what Father Gabriel sees, thinks, and knows. Yet in the second chapter, we briefly and inexplicably enter the mind of another minor character. We never return to that character’s viewpoint, nor will we alternate between the perspectives of anyone else in the novel. This brief lapse, merely an expedient to convey information crucial to the mystery, will jar those readers attentive to narrative craft.
“Because I am a Catholic,” Flannery O’Connor famously said in her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”: I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” Fortunately for us, Fiorella de Maria is an artist, and good one. And her greatest contribution—aside from giving us the delight of another detective novel—lies in her willingness to give a shocking and accurate depiction of sin. Without straying into excess or titillation, de Maria quite rightly portrays what evil does to the human person—to our bodies, to our souls, and to our relations with others. What’s more, by giving us Father Gabriel she has reaffirmed—even in the face of great darkness—the Christian certainty that evil can be overcome by good. I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s answer in Tremendous Trifles to a woman who denounced fairy tales for being too frightening and dark. The terrible darkness, Chesterton insists, is already known to man from the world and from within his soul. The fairy tale, he argues, offers us the defeat of that darkness:
a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
With the birth of Father Gabriel in Fiorella de Maria’s The Sleeping Witness, we can cheerfully welcome another of these “knights of God” to the delightful world of mystery novels.