Monk-cum-lawyer William Brodrick made his name thanks partly to Richard and Judy but mostly because The Sixth Lamentation was fantastic. It’s the story of an elderly Nazi war criminal who seeks sanctuary at an English priory, where he tells his side of the story to lawyer-cum-monk Anselm Duffy. Investigating for himself, Father Anselm ends up on the trail of a Jewish refugee-smuggling operation that was set up in Occupied France. An intelligent mystery full of moral complexity and flawed, interesting characters, it made me keen to read the follow-up.
A Whispered Name wasn’t as good, but only in the same sense that most good novels don’t really match up to great ones. This one sees Father Anselm meet a woman in the graveyard at the priory, but she hasn’t come to mourn a dead monk, she has come to reveal something terrible about him that happened during the First World War. Again, the novel quickly heads into the foggy grey areas, and the truths are just as complicated as in The Sixth Lamentation. But it somehow felt less satisfying, perhaps because Father Anselm is not as integral to the mystery, perhaps because the truth is already several generations old, and only needs revealing.
I had hopes that The Day of the Lie would avoid this problem because it is about a tragedy that is still part of living memory: the plight of opposition activists in Communist Poland from the 1950s to the 1980s. A British journalist throws himself on the mercy of an old schoolfriend with a reputation for solving mysteries (our Father Anselm, of course), imploring him to investigate what happened to the dissidents he interviewed in the early 1980s. There are a few things Father Anselm’s old pal hasn’t told him about what really happened when he was thrown out of Poland, however, as the wise monk slowly discovers.
The Day of the Lie proved to be a great disappointment, and not just in the sense that it is not as good as A Whispered Name, let alone The Sixth Lamentation. Indeed, part of the problem is that it feels very much like reading a less involving, more plodding draft of The Sixth Lamentation. Father Anselm is even more detached from proceedings than he was in A Whispered Name, to the extent that Brodrick throws in some unnecessary commentary on what’s going on from the monk as if to remind us he is still there. I couldn’t help feeling that he exists in the novel solely as a catalyst through which the secrets are revealed. He doesn’t so much investigate as just listen to other characters tell him what happened.
Consequently the story sags considerably in the middle, after a good start and a better ending. The best thing I can say about the novel is that it provides a brilliant depiction of life in a totalitarian state. This isn’t a philosophical tour like Nineteen Eighty Four or the fantastical satire of Brave New World, nor is it yet another fictional story of life under the Nazi jackboot. This oppressive state was run by people who are still alive today. The novel doesn’t focus on the machinery of controlling human beings’ lives, but is all about what individuals do, and how the nature of their society affects them. In that sense, and pretty much only in that sense, the novel is a success.