Welcome back to the Literary Helpdesk where the well-intentioned staff practice a bookish brand of medicine without a license, dispensing the salve of sonnets, the unguent of unabridged translations, and the balm of biographies.
Today’s prescription is more in the ice-bath family of cures–short, intense, and hard to laugh through. Three Last Things: The Hounding of Carl Jarrold, Soulless Assassin is the latest book from Corinna Turner, an established and prolific author of Catholic YA fiction.
I did some editorial work on this novella, and my name is on some of the endorsements the author is using to advertise it, but clients of the Literary Helpdesk may rest assured: I don’t stand to benefit in any way from sales of the title, nor from clicks to the links I provide. (I edit a lot of books; most won’t be mentioned in this column, but when one yields a topic for the Literary Helpdesk it seems only fair to name it and provide links as I would for any other book I write about.)
Turner has a gift for dreaming up imaginative perspectives on faith for teenagers. Her oeuvre ranges from the dystopian to the headline-driven, and from medieval fantasy to Jurassic Park-style sci-fi. Three Last Things is her first published work for adults, but continues her streak of interesting settings as she takes us to death row on the day of a murderer’s execution.
Capital punishment is a divisive topic, particularly in the US where around 30 states, the federal government and the military, allow the death penalty for certain offenses. At a glance, any controversy is a straightforward tension between mercy and justice (which are wrongly opposed as often as faith and reason, Scripture and Tradition, and the letter and the spirit of the law): those who wish to show mercy advocate sparing the life, and those who wish to see justice done consider execution a fitting penalty for the crimes it punishes. Of course, there is more going on than that.
Questions of the competence of the legal system come into the debate. If you’re skeptical that miscarriages of justice happen, spend some time on the Innocence Project website, specifically looking at cases where the death penalty was involved. Be warned, though: the crimes described are horrifying — the majority of death penalty cases in these files are murders involving sexual violence and/or torture, and reading about them could be truly triggering/disturbing/nightmare-inducing for some. There is plenty in these files to make many of us think execution is the only just punishment. The only thing that could make most of these offences more heinous is to execute an innocent man for them, but in at least the twenty-two capital cases successfully overturned by the Innocence Project, the wrong man was sentenced to death.
In most of these cases the overturning of the sentence was due to advances in DNA testing that allowed semen and blood evidence to be re-examined to exclude the innocent convict as a potential perpetrator. Without downplaying what the Innocence Project has accomplished, we should note that these sorts of cases are, forensically-speaking, the low-hanging fruit. In cases where biological evidence was never collected, was stored improperly, or has since been lost or destroyed, or where there was none to find in the first place, then proving a wrongful conviction can be more difficult.
All of this is just to say that if Turner wanted to problematize capital punishment there are plenty of easy ways to do it: an innocent man, malicious prosecution, insufficient evidence for an appeal. There is ample proof these things actually happen.
Carl Jarrold is guilty. He has killed more than a dozen people in cold blood, for cold hard cash. He is, as the title says, a soulless assassin.
Of course, the title is a tease. Carl can’t be soulless. The novella is about his soul. Never having known love from another person, Carl stubbornly clings to the idea that life is meaningless. The prison chaplain, however, thinks Carl can be saved. Fr Jacob is dying too, but despite his pain and frailty he has faithfully visited and ministered to Carl. The condemned man nevertheless insisted Fr. Jacob not come on the day of his execution, and as the hour draws near he is finding it harder not to care about being alone or to wonder about if there is anything in what the old priest said.
Three Last Things is not a typical story about capital punishment, if such a thing exists. While there is a lot of talk about the waste of life in both his crimes and execution, and an unsubtle suggestion that the State may not be competent in its administration of justice, no one ever claims that the sentence is unjust as such. The question is not whether justice should prevail, or mercy? It is rather: what does God want for Carl Jarrold?
The subtitle again answers the question before the story is begun. ‘The Hounding of Carl Jarrold’ isn’t a reference to an angry mob out for his blood, nor to the psychological torture of a guilty conscience, but to Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven”, in which a stubborn soul is pursued by God in the form of a giant hound on enormous padding feet. The poem opens: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down labyrinthine ways; In my own mind and in the midst of tears.” This is no Hound of the Baskervilles, intent upon savagery, but a determined sheep dog ready to face down the wolves.
The idea of God pursuing so evil a man as Carl Jarrold to offer salvation is a challenging one. It is easy enough to affirm that Christ died once and for all upon the Cross for the redemption of sinners. It is harder to apply this belief equally to all the sinners we encounter. There is a platitudinous claim that notions of sin and justice put people off the faith, but in more than 20 years as a catechist, I have found mercy and forgiveness are often harder pills to swallow. A woman once told me through tears that she could not believe her sins would be forgiven in baptism or in confession because if she believed that: “I would have to believe that the man who raped me when I was eight years old could be forgiven the same way, and what business does God have forgiving him if I can’t?”
Loving our enemies is not a sweet and easy thing to do. It tears us apart. And believing God loves them can feel like betrayal.
The question Three Last Things sets before us is not if the death penalty is just, but what it costs in terms of our souls. If Carl dies unrepentant he will be damned. There is no sentimental universalism in this story: Fr Jacob is frightened for Carl because he knows Hell is real. The challenge of this story is to share Fr Jacob’s horror at the thought of any soul, even that of a murderer, going to Hell.
If Christ died to redeem all sinners and lead us to salvation, then to desire or delight in the prospect of the damnation of another soul is to set oneself against the Will of God.
Seen in this light, it is hard to accept a discussion of capital punishment as Christian simply because it uses terms like mercy and justice. Underlying it must be a fundamental concern for the salvation of the guilty soul who, whether he knows it or not, is loved beyond measure by the God who has already suffered execution to save him from what he deserves.
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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