A few years ago, in a column on the Word on Fire website, author Andrew Petiprin mused, “Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness if there were new Catholic novels to grab off the newsstand at the airport?”
In The Beast of Bethulia Park, journalist Simon P. Caldwell delivers such a novel. A fast-paced modern mystery-play replete with stumbling heroes and bloodthirsty villains, it is a book one could easily recommend to a friend seeking an engrossing read for a long-haul flight or a convalescence.
Set in present-day England, the novel is both a wild romp that includes fistfights, love interests, and the pursuit of a pair of murderous doctors, and a careful study of human agents navigating the present-day moral landscape.
Canadian Catholic novelist Randy Boyagoda spoke of wanting to write his novels in the “here and now.” Caldwell manages that, placing his characters firmly in the here and now Britain of gamers, pornography, Tesco grocery stores and the NHS.
At the center of the novel are two men and two women. Fr. Calvin Baines is a young, earnest, and naïve priest who becomes embroiled in a quest, together with nurse, Emerald Essien, and journalist, Jenny Bradshaigh, to unmask a prominent and powerful doctor, Dr. Reinhard Klein. Klein, who is at one with the spirit of the Nazi doctors, is both talented and intelligent, but believes he is working for the common good when he kills the old people in his care at Bethulia Park Hospital. In a post-coital conversation with Dr. Octavia Tarleton, his partner in both adultery and murder, Klein says that what he is doing is merciful. Mercy, Klein says, “needs, like so much else, to be redefined into something you can actually believe in. It needs to be purified for our century.”
Caldwell is not shy to put straight-up Catholic doctrine into the mouth of Fr. Calvin Baines and thereby the novel. But Fr. Baines is no flat and pious poster boy. He becomes sexually obsessed with the mysterious and beautiful Emerald and his fidelity to his priestly vocation hangs in the balance. Caldwell wisely resists the temptation to tidily package up and dispense with that tension in the first half of the novel. It persists and evolves, and the reader is allowed to witness Fr. Baines and Emerald step forward and back and then forward again.
There are no static characters in The Beast of Bethulia Park—each one is on a pilgrimage. With deft handling, Caldwell weaves into their stories the historical pilgrimages of Catholic Britain. Put on administrative leave after trying to force his way into the hospital records, Fr. Baines goes to London, to the site of the Tyburn Tree at Marble Arch where, “more than a hundred Catholic men and women died as martyrs between 1535 and 1681.” Later, he and Emerald travel to Holywell in North Wales, the site of healing waters that, “for more than a thousand years had been associated with the horrific murder and miraculous recovery of a beautiful Welsh maiden who became a nun.” That nun, St. Winefride, gives her name to Fr. Baines’ parish church.
Beyond a portrayal of contemporary Britain shot through with literary and historical references, Caldwell also manages to depict the moral world in which both Catholics and non-Catholics find themselves. It is habitat that St. John Paul II famously identified in Evangelium Vitae as a “culture of death” built on a “veritable structure of sin.”
St. John Paul II wrote that in modern life, “the conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of life.”
The characters of the novel fumble their way in the dark, trying to discern the way forward, questioning themselves. Things are off kilter, but they aren’t quite sure why.
Emerald finds Fr. Baines in the confessional, and she asks him, “So which is worse? Adultery, drug abuse, or keeping quiet when you see others kill? You’d think being an accessory to murder is the easiest thing to avoid. But not in my job it ain’t. Does it make me a coward if I just carry on regardless? Is cowardice a sin? Just how bad am I?”
Caldwell is a seasoned journalist who began his career on local newspapers and then spent over ten years at the Daily Mail foreign desk. His extensive work covering the scandals engendered by the 2003 adoption of the Liverpool Care Pathway provides the backdrop for the crimes of Klein and Tarleton. The LCP, a much-lauded protocol for end-of-life care, was promoted as a vehicle to bring the best of hospice-care to hospital and nursing home settings, but after ten years, the protocol was abandoned. In practice, the LCP resulted in premature death, patients being placed on the pathway when it was not clear that they were, in fact, at the end-of-life, and agonizing last hours when patients were deprived of food and water.
Klein and Tarleton kill deliberately, but they operate within a healthcare system that provides a conducive environment for their murderous predilections. In the novel, it is a fine line between easing a patient out of this world and relieving the world of the burden of the sick and aged.
Caldwell brings a lively pacing to his first novel that speaks to his years of producing copy. At times his handling of the characters and the transitions between scenes feels a bit clumsy, but those are minor criticisms. We can only hope that there will soon be another Fr. Baines book we can grab off the shelf when we are next passing through the airport.
The Beast of Bethulia Park
By S. P. Caldwell
Paperback, 432 pages
(Editor’s note: A version of this review was published earlier by The Catholic Register.)
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