- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

Reginald Hill’s The Stranger House (HarperCollins, $24.95, 470 pages) is set in the isolated fictional village of Illthwaite in the author’s home county of Cumbria, England, where myths, legends and variable versions of events, both recent and in the distant past, abound.

The novel is well-written, enthralling and unusual — perhaps even odd, in the best sense of that word. There may or may not be miracles here, unless it is coincidence (which is mathematically possible), but one of its two protagonists, a once-aspiring Catholic priest, does have visions and sees ghosts, from his own life and from the distant past of his family.

Two outsiders, one Australian, one Spanish, on different quests, arrive in the village on the same day and take the two rooms above a pub in the town’s only bed-and-breakfast. The pub, The Stranger House, had 500 years before been the guest house for a Catholic abbey destroyed by Henry VIII.

The Australian, Sam (Samantha) Flood, is seeking the origins of her grandmother, who arrived in Australia, pregnant, at the age of 11 and died in childbirth. Sam has discovered that her grandmother’s only possession was a slip of paper with the name Sam Flood written upon it and the address of the Church of England parish in Illthwaite.

Her grandmother was one of 150,000 unwanted or orphaned English children shipped to the colonies in the 20th century, supposedly for adoption, a painful story told in Margaret Humphries’ expose, “Empty Cradles,” published in 1994.

The other stranger, Miguel Madero, from a wealthy and ancient Spanish family, has dropped out of his study for the Catholic priesthood after a rock-climbing accident. He still very much has his faith, but feels he has lost his “calling” to the priesthood. He comes to Illthwaite ostensibly to research his thesis on those Catholics who refused during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I to join the Church of England.

But more importantly, he is seeking information on a Jesuit priest from Illthwaite who had 500 years before given his family information about a lost son who had sailed to England with the Spanish Armada — this priest or this ancestor may or may not be the person he has had visions of since he was a boy, and even his boyhood priest and Jesuit professors have been wary of such.

Miguel is sincere (even inspirational) in his faith, but in Sam Flood, a mathematician come to do graduate study at Cambridge, he meets an intense anticleric, whose God, she says, is “the last prime number.” The only thing they have in common is that they both come from wine-making families, his old and established, hers younger but prize-winning. I think there is little doubt that Mr. Hill means this wine to be symbolic.

Her comments about the church and the priesthood are salty, even obscene enough not to be printable in this newspaper, an attitude bolstered by her suspicion that it was a Catholic or Church of England priest who impregnated her grandmother. The dialogue between the two is one of the great joys of this book. I became so enthralled by it that I read until three in the morning, all the way to its surprising conclusion.

The author says in his introduction, “My heroine’s terms of reference are mathematical, my hero’s religious,” and “that just as theologians and mathematicians use impossibilities, such as the square root of minus one or the transubstantiation of wine into blood, to express their eternal verities, so it is with writers and their fictions.”

This complex book will challenge the reader both spiritually and intellectually. To make it even more complex, the book is a very good primer on Nordic mythology: Viking symbols are still preserved on some Christian graves in the town’s cemetery. And the reader will probably learn more than he or she wishes to know about the persecution and torture of Catholics under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, which comes close to approaching the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.

The world’s best-selling mystery writer, P. D. James, moved adroitly from her career in forensics and law enforcement to the writing of mystery novels. Over the last three decades, many a writer has made similar use of his or her professional career, even when the career is not closely related to the solving of murders.

Author Sarah Andrews’ field is geology, and in her current novel Dead Dry (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $24.95, 306 pages), her geologist Em Hassen is again drawn into a murder case when the Utah state police want her to inspect the half-buried body of a man at a granite quarry, who has in the middle of the night been buried by a gravel slide, in all likelihood set off by dynamite.

Ms. Andrews writes well, and the dialogue is particularly delightful — I assume it is a pretty accurate reproduction of Western speech, ribbing and jokes.

The novel is a combination of mystery novel and romance novel, but it is probably most interesting for what one learns about Utah/Colorado geology, Western weather and Colorado’s water problems. Ms. Andrews, through the mouth of Em Henson, is a born teacher who manages to make the complicated clear to both police and the reader.

Ms. Andrews’ environmentalism pervades the book, but it is clear she knows what she is talking about, and she backs up her positions with fact and logical argument.

One finishes this book fearing for the future of Denver and the areas to its south. I was amazed to learn that in its desperation for water Colorado made the collection of rainwater for personal use illegal. Em and her geologist friends use the phrase “mining for water,” for in Colorado, at least, water is not a replenishable resource.

Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling mysteries (of which there are a large number) are a bit too sentimental for my taste, but they do bring good cheer. In Blood Ties (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $24.95, 260 pages), Father Dowling’s alcoholism, from which he is now recovering, has sent him to a small shrinking parish rather than into the hierarchy of the church.

His problem in this novel is that a young lady in his parish is about to be married and feels obligated to seek out her birth mother, even though she loves and has been loved by her adopted parents and grandparents, all of whom strenuously object to her search.

Father Dowling will discover the birth mother, but then must resolve all the ethical and personal problems that ensure. Those who know these mysteries will know that almost all turns out well, as well as could be excpected in this world — and may even shed a few tears. And, yes, there is a murder which occurs because of all these conflicts.

The author is a longtime professor at Notre Dame (on which campus he has set a number of mystery novels), and his positions on premarital sex and abortion come through loud and clear, but since it is an Irishman the author and Father Dowling both are, there is an awareness both of the breadth of human shortcoming and a strong sense of forgiveness.

Lloyd Shaw is a retired professor of English who has moved back after 50 years to his North Carolina. hometown.

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