It is pretty rare these days for me to pick up a book that I have no prior knowledge of but it did happen with my book club’s choice of William Brodrick’s THE DISCOURTESY OF DEATH this month. I enjoyed starting a book with absolutely no preconceived ideas about it.
Set in present-day England the novel features a monk (who I’d have thought would be called Brother but seems to be known as Father) Anselm who is relatively new to his vocation, having been a criminal lawyer before experiencing something of an epiphany about the inadequacies of the law, specifically incidents in which he has successfully defended people who are guilty. At the beginning of this story Anselm is the subject of a feature article in a Sunday newspaper that details his exploits as a monk who investigates cases that the police can’t or won’t become involved with. This publicity prompts Anselm’s Prior to allow him to have a more public focus than the other members of the Larkwood Priory; to take his particular form of ministry ‘on the road’ if you like. The first case resulting from this decision starts with an anonymous plea for Anselm to investigate the case of Jenny Henderson who died several years previously. Relatively recently paralysed following an accident and newly diagnosed with cancer there is some question as to whether she was murdered or possibly the subject of an assisted suicide.
THE DISCOURTESY OF DEATH is an atypical crime novel in that it does not concern itself with the procedural elements of investigation nor, really, the practical elements of the crime itself (assuming one has been committed). Instead the novel uses a crime, or an incident to be precise, to explore from several angles the question of whether or not it is possible to justify the killing of a human being. Issues surrounding ‘mercy killing’ and euthanasia (assisted or not) are explored, but the novel also tackles the subject of whether or not the killing of one person can or ought to be justified if it is likely to prevent a greater amount of suffering. I’m sorry if it’s a spoiler but it is pertinent to report that the book doesn’t provide any definitive answer to these thorny questions (it would be a very different and, for me, far less successful book if it did so) but it does explore the morality of the issues in a very considered and respectful way. In our modern world it seems everyone has a fully formed opinion on all the great moral issues and all anyone wants to do is to loudly argue the correctness of their side of any subject, so I was rather pleased to encounter a book which seemed only to want to raise questions and provide insights that might assist readers in forming their own views on the topics it explores.
I suppose due to the nature of the novel some of the traditional elements such as character and plot development are not in evidence in the way you’d expect and this does take some getting used to. That the victim is fairly one-dimensional is not that rare but here so are the family and friends who surround her. They seem to me to be serving as representatives of a particular segment of the moral spectrum, archetypes if you like, rather than as well-rounded human beings in their own right. This approach served this particular book well but it certainly isn’t one that would fulfil readers looking for characters to really identify with and/or develop an intimate knowledge of. The plot meanwhile is in some ways quite simple, revolving around a few key events, but the novel’s drama comes from each version of ‘the truth’ that gets revealed about what may have happened.
My only real quibble is that aside from its main themes the book’s lack of questioning of some subjects was…uncomfortable. For example everyone in the novel seemed to accept that a ballet dancer becoming paralysed is equivalent to the end of a life but I can acknowledge that the book couldn’t tackle more issues than it did with the same kind of depth and intelligence and all the characters were really taking their lead from Jenny who did feel that to be true in her case.
I don’t imagine this is a book for everyone. It is quite slow, is at times driven more by philosophical contemplation than pure narrative and there is not a definitive resolution in sight. However, if you are up for a practical exploration of multiple sides of a weighty moral issue and can deal with an ambiguous ending then I thoroughly recommend it.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Little Brown 
Length 336 pages
Book Series #5 in the Father Anselm series
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