Crimes of the Father by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre, £18.99
Novelists generally fall into two categories: those who need to research their books and those who believe that going to the library or using journalistic techniques is cheating. Some novelists, notoriously, change approach midway through career, like the late Beryl Bainbridge, who used up all her personal material and turned to historical events, or the crime writer Richard Price, who claimed that even his therapist had grown bored with his autobiographical novels and suggested that he start talking to cops and criminals instead.
But perhaps the best example of a writer having a research-based story fall into his lap is Thomas Keneally. Famously, the author was buying a suitcase in Beverly Hills when a security check by Mastercard led to him staying long enough to talk to a Schindler survivor called Leopold Pfefferberg.
Pffeferberg showed the Australian author a collection of historical material he happened to have in the shop and shared stories which inspired Keneally to write his Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler’s Ark, later to be adapted into the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.
Keneally described that book as a work of “faction”, or “documentary novel”. It’s a genre the octogenarian Keneally has returned to several times across his 31 novels, and he does so again in his latest book, Crimes of the Father, which addresses the difficult subject of child abuse within the Catholic Church.
Crimes of the Father is, Keneally explains in his acknowledgements, a “book of demons”. Although it doesn’t appear to have real-life models in the way Schindler’s Ark did, it has been inspired by what Keneally refers to as “a crisis in the Church”, by which he means the discovery of historic cases of child abuse by paedophile priests.
The novel is written in an extremely plain style. Keneally’s protagonist is a wise and empathetic psychologist and monk named Fr Frank Docherty. Arriving in Sydney in 1996, Docherty tries to befriend a female taxi driver on the way to the hotel, only to be surprised by the hostile reception he receives from her. It soon emerges that the taxi driver is a former nun named Sarah Fagan who was abused by a priest as a child. Shocked by her story, Docherty promises he will find justice for her.
This plot is half the novel. The other half concerns Docherty trying to achieve his own return to the Archdiocese of Sydney after being exiled to Canada 20 years earlier for preaching against the Vietnam War.
Keneally claims this second plot is not directly drawn from life, arguing that his protagonist is “utter fiction”. But he suggests that if his character had been real he would have likely been friends with Keneally’s “dear friend” Pat Connor, whose death Keneally “marks” with this book.
Connor, Keneally explains, “was expelled from the Archdiocese of Sydney for … pacifically stated political opinions”. For all Keneally’s dissembling, it seems clear that he has written the novel to address injustices both general and particular.
The conflation of these two plots makes for a slightly lopsided read, especially when he adds in the further complication of Fr Docherty’s near-affair with a married woman. Keneally, it becomes clear, wants to present his protagonist as a flawed man, facing doubts and carnal temptations, who nevertheless manages to do the right thing.
The biggest question facing a novelist addressing this sort of dark material is, of course, moral responsibility. Should the author attempt to put the reader in the mind of the abuser (as Nabokov did in Lolita), allowing the reader to see the darkness of the character’s mind through his self-justification? Or is the duty of the novelist to show the reader the victims’ pain?
Keneally achieves the latter in part with the character of Sarah Fagan, whose subsequent life and psychology has clearly been scarred by what she’s been through. But for the most part, he takes a third option, similar to the one adopted in the film Spotlight, constructing a crime drama with an investigator pursuing justice for the victims of past abuse.
Crimes of the Father has something of the feel of John Grisham’s courtroom thrillers, especially when Docherty’s brother, a lawyer involved in industrial relations, takes up Doherty’s cause.
But the novel is not completely successful, mainly because the crime plotting is so rudimentary. The keen sense of journalistic realism in the early sections eventually gives way to cop show shenanigans, including a pretend mugging and a purloined suicide note. These sort of silly reveals might work in the final segment of a particularly flat-footed episode of Father Dowling Investigates, but they have no place in a work of this seriousness.
But for all this, there is no questioning that Keneally has been successful in his ambition of writing an accessible, mass-market novel about the most difficult of subjects.
It is not an easy read, but nor should it be, and for all the novel’s structural weaknesses, it is a worthwhile attempt to explore how a devoted priest with a clear understanding of humanity can if not atone for, then at least fully address, the crimes of others.