The Devil's Advocate by Morris L. West (1959)
In my exploration of the closed stacks for suitable Zombie Summer Reading Program material, I've come upon a lot of schlock, which is about what I expected. But deep down, I've been hoping to uncover some forgotten classic. The Devil's Advocate ain't it, but it comes close. Which gives me hope for what the rest of the summer holds.
Morris West was an Australian writer who almost became a priest, decided to become a writer instead, had a nervous breakdown about it, became the Vatican correspondent for the Daily Mail,then went on to pen over 25 novels and a number of plays before his death in 1999. As you might expect, the church figures heavily in his work.
The Devil's Advocate is about a Vatican priest named Blaise Meredith who is sent to a remote Italian village to investigate a candidate for beatification. The would-be saint was an English deserter named Giacomo Nerone who mysteriously appeared in the village and became its most beloved citizen, at least until the villagers turned him over to a firing squad.
When Meredith arrives in the village, he's just been diagnosed with stomach cancer and given only a few months to live. In addition to suffering almost constant pain, his investigation is stymied by the tight-lipped residents of the village, hesitant to speak of their complicity in Nerone's death, even as they place remnants of the bloody shirt he died in over the bellies of women in childbirth.
Meredith's greatest allies are the Jewish doctor living in exile, both Nerone's closest friend and fiercest rival, and Nerone's lover, a village woman who bore him a bastard son. His enemies are the Contessa, an English woman who suffers from some kind of hysteria caused by her overly passionate nature or something, and Nick Black, a homosexual English painter living under her patronage. West's characterizations of these two suffer from prevailing attitudes of the times. The Contessa's troubles are nothing a loving husband or a good dose of the Lord wouldn't fix, and Nick is suspected of trying to seduce Nerone's teenage son throughout the book. Despite these stereotypes, however, West's depictions of the two are not without sympathy, and the eventual resolution of Nick's relationship is handled with far more subtlety than I expected.
The question of Nerone's canonization is similarly subtle, and suitably shrouded in mystery. While I did skim over many of Meredith's long-winded meditations on faith, The Devil's Advocate is a page-turner with compelling supporting characters and just a touch of the miraculous and the mystical.
And it's a fair sight better than Enid Blyton.