You start to read a mystery, one in a series that you’ve been enjoying. You like the detective, you like the way the author writes, you like the interesting stories that are told. And as you begin reading the next book in the series, you discover you’re reading something else entirely. You keep looking for the mystery, the whodunit, and it doesn’t seem to be there.
You realize as you read on – because you’re compelled to read on – that this is no mystery novel. Yes, it has the familiar detective – Father Anselm of Larkwood monastery in England. Yes, it has an air of mystery about it, because there is a mystery to be solved, or to describe it better, a 90-year-old enigma to be deciphered. And if it can be deciphered, it must also be understood.
A Whispered Name by British-Canadian author William Brodrick is a stunning, serious, literary novel, one of the best I’ve read in years. I should have been prepared for it by the second Father Anselm mystery, The Gardens of the Dead, because that novel, too, broke the boundaries of the genre. But not to the extent of A Whispered Name, originally published in 2008.
Father Anselm, a former barrister, is tending his beehives at Larkwood. He’s approached by a woman and an old man, who ask him if he knew Father Herbert Moore, a member of Anselm’s Gilbertine Order and a founder of the monastery where Anselm lives and works. He did, but, as it turns out, not well, or not well enough. She tells him that if he didn’t know that Moore was an officer in World War I, then he wouldn’t know that Moore participated in a court martial of a young soldier named Joseph Flanigan. And she leaves.
Anselm, at the direction of his prior, begins to investigate. No one in the monastery apparently knew about Father Moore’s military service. Anselm must look farther afield, to old military records stored at Kew Gardens, diaries, and descendants of other officers. Each tidbit of information he’s able to glean comes with its own enigma.
The reader has a slight advantage over Father Anselm. Not only do we get the story of Anselm’s investigation, we also get the story of Herbert Moore as it unfolded at the time. The two lines of narrative move back and forth, until they finally converge. And what looks to be a fairly straightforward court martial during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 turns out to be anything but. And what happened in 1917 still has its clutches around the present.
Brodrick was a friar in the Augustine order before he became a barrister and a writer. He’s written eight of the Father Anselm mysteries, with A Whispered Name winning the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2009. He lives in France. (And the Gilbertine Order was a real order of monks but was disbanded by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s.)
In the last 50 to 75 pages, there were few times I wasn’t moved to tears. I knew what had happened, and I knew why, in all of its convolutions. And when I finished, I knew I had read a story of substitution and redemption.
A Whispered Name is a marvelous novel, a novel of war and family, national passions, bravery and cowardice and how the two may often be confused. And it's a novel about human decency surviving in the face of some of the worst conditions imaginable.