Thursday, 14 September 2000

D.M. Greenwood: Heavenly Vices (1997)

Edition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 618

Claremont is one of the colleges which prepare students for ordination into the Anglican church, and it is suffering a crisis like that faced by that church in the UK. It is staffed by a group of stereotypes, mainly there for secular purposes rather than as a result of religious conviction; this is in contrast to the equally stereotyped group of students, whose shared characteristic could be described as simple faith. (They include a patronising portrait of an African cleric overwhelmed by the cultural differences between his homeland and a college in the Chilterns.)

This rather lazy background is the setting for a tepid murder mystery, for Claremont is currently suffering from a particular as well as a general crisis. Its head, political schemer Conrad Duff, has died, Although the doctor has certified that the cause was a heart attack, his unpleasant wife Richeldis (whose dislike of her husband is just about the only facet of her character Greenwood allows to exist) is convinced that it was murder. She (bizarrely) chooses outsider Theodora Braithwaite, who has just arrived at the college to work on the private papers of its founder for a biography, to investigate. She forces her to do this by refusing to allow her access to Henry Newcome's diaries for the crucial years in the 1870s when he was working on one of the most important books of nineteenth century Anglican theology unless she unmasks the murderer. Even more bizarrely, Theodora does so, rather than getting someone with authority to force Richeldis to turn the papers (which belong to the college) over to her.

Overall, Heavenly Vices is a lazy and poorly written detective novel, which seems to serve no other purpose than to perpetuate the stereotypical view that the Church of England is run by political schemers bent on confusing those with a naive and simple faith who form their congregations. Greenwood's lack of real interest in what she is writing is exemplified by shoddy detail such has misdating the premiere of Weber's opera Der Freischutz.

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