Thursday, 27 January 2011

'A Whispered Name'

Last November I briefly mentioned William Brodrick's A Whispered Name. Follow the link to see an interview with the author or read on for a more detailed review, which will also shortly appear at

William Brodrick’s Father Anselm novels are very welcome additions to the literary canon. There are many fine novels about World War I but, in A Whispered Name, Brodrick gives us something new: a compelling mystery about a First World War deserter and his mysterious links with an officer who went on to become a priest and monk.

Brodrick’s Father Anselm, who finally uncovers the mystery, is the latest in a long line of priest-detectives. What makes this novel different is the detailed knowledge Brodrick, a barrister and former Augustinian friar, brings to his writing. He creates, in Larkwood monastery, an entirely believable monastic community and fills it with psychologically credible individuals.

He also creates a genuinely intriguing, if slow-moving, plot. A chance meeting with an elderly man and his daughter in Larkwood monastery’s cemetery forces Anselm into carrying out an investigation into the story behind the apparent execution of a young Irish soldier for desertion during the slaughter of Passchaendale in 1917. What he discovers – without wishing to give too much of the plot away – is a complex and intriguing tale of courage behind a veneer of straightforward military cowardice.

A Whispered Name – the title is taken from a Sassoon poem – is both a well-plotted crime novel and a powerful reconstruction of some of the worst days of that terrible war. It won the 2009 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award but it is a literary rather than a popular novel. Brodrick writes well and gets his legal and military details right; however, what really makes the book are the rounded characters. A Whispered Name is no page-turner but it is a gripping and powerful account of ordinary people in extraordinarily difficult times.

I did find myself wondering for much of the book what difference it made having a monk as investigator but, by the end of the novel, I was convinced. What starts off as a war novel and a murder mystery of sorts becomes a profound meditation on faith and life. After 300 pages, many military horrors, and a few clever twists, we are left thinking not just about the horrors of war but also about the possibility of redemption.

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