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Murder most foul, or just a puzzle?

25 April 2014

Peggy Woodford finds a well-crafted story lacking in heart

A Vicar, Crucified (An Abbot Peter Mystery)
Simon Parke
DLT £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT366 )

"SURELY the first crucifixion ever on the south coast of England!" exclaims the horrified Abbot Peter when he hears that the Revd Anton Fontaine has been discovered hanging naked from a cross in the vestry, dead. Fontaine was vicar of Stormhaven, the quiet seaside town that Abbot Peter has retired to.

There are seven likely suspects: six are members of the PCC, allare closely connected to the parish, and all had a grudge of some sort against Fontaine. Which of them did it? The police investigation gets nowhere until Abbot Peter joins the inquiry.

Simon Parke has invented an unlikely hero, but, though the Abbot's recent service as abbot of a remote monastery in the Sinai desert hardly fits him to becomea Special Witness assisting the police, he is a shrewd judge of character.

Indeed, the unlikely is a featureof Parke's novel: Abbot Peter discovers that he is the uncleof the detective on the case, Tamsin Shah; their family link is through the eccentric Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, whose fame rests on his connection with the Sarmoun community in Afghanistan and its particular belief system involving the mystical Enneagram, a circle bisected into nine points.

No, I hadn't heard of it either, but Parke is an exponent of its use and power, and has put it at the heart of his story, providing in addition two explanatory appendices at the end of the book: a diagram and an analysis of the types of human being revealed by each of the Enneagram's nine points.

The story in itself is good, the murderer's identity is well concealed, and the dialogue is convincing and often funny (Parke was a scriptwriter for Spitting Image); but at the heart of the book there is a curious absence of feeling. When the second victim's body is discovered, there's no horror. Terrible events are described in the same tones as the Winter Fair. The lack of heart may be due to Parke's schema: everything has to fitround the nine aspects of personality types as defined by the Enneagram, and maybe this has a limiting rather than a liberating effect.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

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