Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams
Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams (Severn House, 2014) the fifteenth Dorothy Martin Mystery, sees the process for appointing a new bishop rudely interrupted by the death of one of the four on the shortlist. By virtue of his long-term involvement in church affairs and his status as a retired senior police office, Alan Martin has been made a member of the Crown Appointments Commission and is at the heart of the appointments process. Dorothy as an ex-pat American can’t formally be a part of the process but, as a disinterested observer, she can play a part in untangling the web, particularly because, as one of those responsible for making the appointment, Alan is a potential suspect. Despite Alan’s retired status, the Dean of the cathedral asks our dynamic duo to do what they do, which is to investigate quietly. The selection of the candidates has been bad-tempered and, once the shortlist was announced, the anger has grown.
It’s a sad fact of life in an increasingly secular society that the minority Christians feel more under pressure. In this case, there’s a significant political element involved as conservatives (with both big and little cs) despise and agitate against reformist and socialist candidates. Meanwhile, women campaign with placards proclaiming a sexist church that refuses to consider appointing a woman to the position of bishop. There are also problems with the Church’s attitude to homosexuality. The Commission meetings have been acrimonious with passions high on the extremes, and the moderates trying to hold the balance of rational debate in the centre. This identifies several on the Commission itself who might have a motive for eliminating this particular candidate. The remaining three on the shortlist might also be suspect. Our duo set off for London where one of the shortlisted candidates has his parish. There are dark mutterings about him being a man who misuses his charisma to extract money from susceptible women in the congregation and then pockets some of the money. The candidate from Birmingham is a social agitator who has been arrested on demonstrations against local factories for polluting the landscape and employers for their poor pay and bad working practices. Then off to Rotherford, near Oxford, for the final candidate. And then, to add a little spice to the somewhat staid proceedings up to this point, a man goes missing.
The problem for solution in this book is somewhat diffuse. There’s a death which may or may not be a homicide. Because our couple are not official investigators and, by virtue of his membership of the Commission, Alan may be on the list of possible suspects, there’s no access to the police forensic reports. With an inquest there would have been public information, but we and our investigators are left to get into investigative mode on the assumption someone has rid the cathedral of a turbulent priest. If this was a Golden Age novel, there would be a way in which the number of possible suspects could be kept within reasonable bounds. But the moment you start thinking seriously about who might have had motive and opportunity, there’s a potential country full of suspects who would have to be investigated. Obviously, despite their prowess, our couple don’t have the time or resources to do anything more than commute between the three parishes in which the other three candidates hold sway. By necessity, therefore, we readers know we must meet the probable murderer at some point. For this reason, I’m not entirely sure the author is playing fair with us. A lot of what happens is interesting, but not really moving us forward. It’s local colour or scenes of life in the different parishes. Yes the couple are investigating, but so little of what they see and hear is ultimately relevant to explaining what has happened.
For me as an atheist, the book is a sober warning about many of the types of people who become involved in church affairs. As skeletons come out of cupboards, we’re allowed to see how bigoted, prejudiced, criminal, or just plain awful some of the people holding positions of power and influence can be. This is not to say society would become a better, safer place if full secularisation were to be achieved. I’m not so naive. Human nature produces some terrible behaviour no matter what the belief systems. But if the veneer of respectability was to be stripped away and society allowed fewer roles through which such people can exercise power over others, we might see some improvement. All forms of politics are better when there are fewer opportunities for self-righteousness and hypocrisy around.
As to the content, I confess to finding the exploration of the way in which different belief sets influenced preaching styles and the management of parishes deeply boring. That some parishioners were gulls and played as suckers was depressing. It reflects the general rule that vulnerable people who come under the sway of charismatic individuals, are more easily led astray. Taking the overview, Day of Vengeance has an interesting plot underpinning the investigation of the initial death and all that follows. But, in parallel, there’s a more literary intent to consider the weaknesses of many who are involved in the management of this religion. Yes, some are sincere and a force for good, but this book is a disturbing exposé of distinctly unhealthy forces within this particular denomination. That this church fails to be self-policing completes the more pervasive sense of despair. It seems the few men who could take action to root out the evil do nothing. A more complete condemnation would be hard to find.
For a review of the preceding book in the series, see Shadows of Death.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.