Green Hills Literary Lantern


Joe Benevento, Saving St. Teresa

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Joe Benevento: Saving St. Teresa (Cupelli Brothers Mysteries) (Volume 2)

304 pps. $12.49 (Kindle edition $3.99)


In a development that will surprise no reader of any mystery-series, the former Monsignor Tony Cupelli again finds himself at the pivot-point of a series of murders. Not himself a suspect, but then, when people repeatedly turn up dead in your wake, that’s kind of suspicious. As it was the last time. Also as with the last outing, this is a successful effort in an established genre, and a thoroughly literary novel as well. No one doubts those things can go together. But no one doubts either that it’s hard to do. The conventions that must be fulfilled are precisely what tend to pull one away from genuine human beings and their worries, to create fictions that depend on experience of fictions rather than on experience of persons.


Some things remain unchanged from the earlier book. Cupelli is a deeply but not appealingly flawed character. His bad behavior is not roguish-and-therefore-ultimately-charming, but petty, and therefore credible and worthy of the reader’s serious reflection. He is also a person of gifts and potential, and those facts make his smallness the more frustrating. As in the launch-novel, The Monsignor’s Wife, these are all fairly ordinary people who take ideas and beliefs seriously. In that book, a priest with scholarly inclinations and a taste for polemics is brought down, not so much by his sexual weaknesses, as by the narcissism and neediness of which his unchastity seems merely to be a symptom. As in the renewal of baptism promises, evil is recognized as mere glitter, pathetically aiming at glamor, ultimately a lot of empty promises. He ends the novel bankrupt in every significant sense, though it is not clear he is fully aware of it. The mystery is solved, and nobody’s the happier.


Tony, now unsurprisingly launched on a second career as a professor, loves an audience, and he reacts badly when people refuse to conform with his assignment of them to that role. That was part of what set things in motion for the murders of the previous novel, when we look into its fairly dark emotional machinery. Tony’s wisecracking brother Mike, a hardboiled cop who happens to be nearly identical in appearance, probably serves him best by his monolithic refusal either to become part of the fan-club or even to take enough notice of his brother to engage him extensively in verbal combat. In the previous novel, there’s a distaste that doesn’t rise to the level of contempt, but it is well beyond the banter of rival siblings who have taken differing paths. Benevento foregoes the cliché constellation of a deep-seated but masked respect between the two, and also steers clear of an easy assignment of Mike’s resentment to anti-intellectualism. Mike’s reaction is somewhat like that of their disgusted and disappointed mother, once so proud and now deeply ashamed of my-son-the-priest. While she focusses on matters of faith – and simple, decorous conduct – Mike’s  instincts tell him that Tony’s logic-chopping and scholarship are less than fully sincere, as his ecclesiastical career was driven more by secular ambition than by faith. In the strictest sense, Mike doesn’t think much of Tony in the first book. That he actively seeks out the ex-priest’s help in this second, and seems actually to value his input, is a fully believable arc of development in their relationship, and a measure of Tony’s redemption (admittedly still a work-in-progress as this novel ends).


This novel is perhaps less overtly cerebral than the earlier one, where the killer was enacting the phenomenological paradoxes of Borges’ fiction in a deliberate sort of provocative puzzle-posing. But it is still a fiction where ideas matter, where they condition the decisions people make, including whom and how they love. Perhaps not consistently or completely, and that too contributes to the overall feel of the novel, which seems to long for the integrated sensibility, where people feel their thoughts and think their feelings. None of the prime movers has a firm policy of acting either on passion or on reason, and that is part of what provides a deep tone of moral and emotional seriousness here. Are there people who don’t wrestle with that? But it gets very little play in contemporary culture, either pop or elite. Such a theme might compromise the filmability of the text – it’s hard to make a summer blockbuster out of people thinking. We need to avoid spoilers here, but the importance of the relation between ratiocination and feeling is underscored by the fact that the trouble here – the murder – ultimately comes from an inability to manage it, as well as a determination to pervert it. Simple denial plays a role too.


This sought-after unity of the felt and the thought is not raised explicitly in the novel. Nobody mentions it. Nobody is described as feeling it. But it motorizes everything, and puts a foundation of significance under what might otherwise be an exercise in plot-diagramming. The novel is everything one wants and reasonably expects of a mystery – a puzzle to solve, with some page-turning suspense and a satisfying resolution. But when one involves clergy and people of serious intellectual and spiritual engagements, history shows the temptation will be strong to bring in Bing Crosby or Father Dowling: warm, witty, wise, wry. Comforting, unthreatening, full of insights that challenge no one. Or bigots. That’s another approach. People of information and education, in turn, will be shown to be arrogant, and really deficient in knowledge of life-as-it’s-lived, you know, street smarts, like *we* have (and which the novel congratulates us on having), the tendency to go-with-your-gut and let your infallible intuitions guide you into the right solution (or a couple of interminable wars with the wrong people ten thousand miles away).


The author’s one detectable act of slyness reveals his determination to avoid those prefabricated approaches to a tension most people capable of reading books actually do live with from day to day. At the beginning of the tenth chapter, there’s an abrupt, even startling shift in genre, as an expository essay takes up the long standing question of how to understand what appears to be overtly sexual imagery of The Interior Castle, the mystical vision of St. Teresa of Avila, in which she describes the ecstatic union with the Divine as a delicious agony, and compares it to the repeated deep thrusts of a sword. Then there her depiction in the famous sculpture of Bernini (reproduced on the cover), which no few people have been unable to see as anything but a woman in the throes of the wildest orgasm. The essay-voice seems determined to brush all that aside, as either the delusions of minds mired in the gutter, or as mere metaphor, where the lewd mistake vehicle for tenor (as has often been done with the intensely and undeniably erotic Song of Songs). And then we find that the essay is not the voice of the author or even of Professor Cupelli, but something he is reading, and wrestling with, as a scholar, a person of faith, and an investigator.


We all think, we all feel. We all experience prohibitions and boundary-lines with both. These are barriers to how we can understand the actions of others, and they are points of vulnerability through which those of ill will can get at us. There are people here with admirably passionate sociopolitical commitments. There are others ready and willing to cynically exploit those. The relationships in this novel are made difficult precisely because they’re among thoughtful people. Again, in the case of mysteries, one avoids spoilers. Suffice it to say that the problem of the literal and the metaphorical, along with that of how earnestly we are to follow our convictions, will re-appear, decisively.


The novel is, like the last, “a good read.” Beyond that, it’s a compelling study of character types and human problems that rarely get the airing their prominence and distribution call for. A venture into a popular genre, and quite a successful one. A work of literary seriousness, yet without pretension.




 Adam Brooke Davis teaches folklore, medieval studies, writing and linguistics at Truman State University.  He has published fiction, poetry, essays and scholarship, and serves as managing editor of GHLL.