TINA BEATTIE is a theologian, and her expertise produces a fast-moving, highly sacerdotal novel, all written in the present tense. The Good Priest is certainly a page-turner, with suspense, murder, and scandal, and a quantity of Aquinas thrown into the mix.
The action unfolds during Lent, culminating on Good Friday, the eponymous hero Father John, 38, a sympathetically human parish priest, and his semi-ghostly nemesis, a depraved Cardinal bent on revenge. Much of the plot hinges on the nature of evil, the identity — and even reality — of the Cardinal, and the seal of the confessional: menace and mystery are skilfully maintained. But a recurring theme is Father John’s struggle with being gay, and the homosexual activities within a predatory priestly hierarchy, dwelt upon to an extent I found verging on prurience.
In its insistence on honesty about sex, the novel also examines the dangerous lives of sex workers (the likeable Babbs) and the gay community represented by the attractive Luke, whom Father John desires. “We’re both in the business of loving,” Babbs says to John. “You do God, I do sex.” As a backdrop, there is a host of recognisable parishioners, including the cat (fortunately endowed with nine lives), and we find humour and real-life choices. It is parish life from an insider’s view, meticulous and insightful, sometimes over-detailed, depicting the loneliness and frustrations of the priest.
Some serious issues are engaged, such as police work and the trafficking of minors. But it’s the terrifying Cardinal, repeatedly and darkly materialising in the confessional, who dominates the story, with his mutilation of prostitutes and revenge on Father John, who had inadvertently caused his downfall. After 442 pages and six-nearly-seven murders sustaining our ghoulish interest, the resolution and possibility of redemption come none too soon.
The Good Priest
Church Times Bookshop £9