Eleanor Bourg Donlon
By John Desjarlais
Sophia Institute Press, 2009
272 pp., $14.95
“A miracle? Or bloody murder?”
The provocative phrase jumped out at us from the bookcover starkly displayed on the Catholic Writers Guild table. My cousin drew in her breath, and I muttered (rather inadequately, but with great expression): “Golly.”
We first encountered John Desjarlais’ Bleeder this summer at the annual Catholic Marketing Network trade show. The gripping tagline left me both intrigued and skeptical. I rarely read willingly, much less enjoy, any book written after 1950. I am particularly prejudiced against contemporary murder mysteries, which I have found almost always to showcase too much gore and too much sex in sub-par writing.
It was an incredible surprise and a delight therefore to find myself attentive through the first chapter (mostly owing to Desjarlais’ excellent prose and effective use of dialogue), entertained by the second, and engrossed from the third onward.
There are many problems facing the writer of murder mysteries. The story has to be well constructed (both in terms of plot and of prose); the characters have to be believable and reasonably sympathetic; and the “clues” have to attain an appropriate degree of subtlety (without being too obscure) or have to be clever enough that the reader will forgive the more superficial elements of literarily designed cryptography
To begin with the first category: the plot of Bleeder is inventive and excellently crafted. Reed Stubblefield, a classics professor who is recovering from the death of his wife and a disability acquired in a school shooting, convalesces in his brother’s cabin in River Falls, a country Illinois town. His hopes to write a book on Aristotle are dashed when he becomes embroiled in the drama that already overwhelms the small, rural community. The Reverend Ray Boudreau, a young priest newly sent to the parish, is rumored to be a stigmatic and a miraculous healer, and River Falls is full of sufferers eager for a miracle and skeptics hoping for exposure. Stubblefield is drawn into an unwilling friendship with Boudreau, primarily based on their shared interest in Aristotle (for Boudreau, in the light of Aquinas), but also inspired by the charming, pleasant personality of the priest himself. When Boudreau bleeds to death on Good Friday in front of a packed church, Reed becomes the primary suspect. Was it a miracle? Or bloody murder? Reed has to find some answers before he is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit—or killed by fanatical members of Boudreau’s following.
Desjarlais does a remarkable job of the development of characters as well. A story by a Catholic author and about Catholic characters could all too easily become sycophantic or, in an effort to avoid triteness or accusations of proselytism, crudely offensive. Desjarlais avoided the first pitfall by choosing Reed Stubblefield for his narrator; he avoided the second by allowing Reed’s initial prejudices to be tested subtlely and effectively through deeply human and believable interaction. In this sense, the representation of Catholic priests was particularly well done. A lesser novel would either have been blind to the humanity of priests or would have harped too censoriously upon it.
Finally, with regard to the clues of Bleeder, it will be immediately apparent to the reader that this is not the sort of tale that characterizes the Golden Age of the British mystery novel—no ruthless businessman is found slain in a closed room with a dagger of oriental design thrust into his heart; there are no complicated genealogical charts by which one may trace the line of inheritance and thereby determine the most likely perpetrators of an epic embezzlement; and no elaborate system of clues is left by a murderer to make sure that the detectives are intellectually stimulated throughout the investigation.
Rather, this is a book where the “mystery” which absorbs the interest of the police is less important than the overarching questions prompted by a consideration of impenetrably deep supernatural mysteries. On a purely structural level, the death of Boudreau is the primary spur for the plot; but the true catalyst of the novel’s action is to be found, not in the bloody death of the priest, but in the death of Christ Himself. The question posed by the novel is not merely: Will Reed be cleared of the charge of murder? Even more importantly the novel asks: Will the soul of this Aristotelian scholar experience conversion?
With so much Aristotle floating around, and so much supernatural consequence, it would be all too easy for the author to lapse into preachy self-righteousness. But at every moment when I began to fear either that philosophical pertinence would become too ostentatious or that the spiritual significance would become cloying, Desjarlais deftly avoided all dangers and pressed on to a satisfying and absorbing conclusion.
My final impression of the novel is a case in point. I predicted the concluding sentence to myself in a general sort of way during one of the early chapters; but when it came, it was as if it had taken me entirely by surprise, and (very much to my astonishment) it brought tears to my eyes. The aftermath of my reading of Bleeder is likewise telling: I was forced temporarily to delay completing my review because my copy of the book mysteriously disappeared. My brother returned it a short time later, with the brief observation: “Hey, that was a really good book.”
My subsequent hypothesis is that a book that inspires theft must be effective in its treatment of murder.
Whether this conclusion is logical or not is a question for Aristotelians.
Eleanor Bourg Donlon, assistant editor for Dappled Things and the Saint Austin Review, is a freelance writer based out of Charlottesville, VA. Read more about and from her at http://www.eleanorbourgdonlon.com.