Much new and often unflattering detail has been revealed in recent years about the attitude of the Catholic Church to the Holocaust. It often makes uncomfortable reading for the faithful. Did Pope Pius XII really turn a blind eye to the death of six million Jews? Was the church truly suffering from what we might now term institutional anti-Semitism? The debate is ongoing. Last month, a besieged Vatican finally agreed to open its secret archives to scholars in the hope of gaining academic absolution.
The plot of William Broderick's The Sixth Lamentation hinges on documents supposedly kept in the secret archives. It is a fiction, of course, but the details closely parallel many recent disclosures about the church's wartime past. In 1944, a group of monks in northern France spirited away a Nazi official, responsible for sending many Jews to their deaths in the extermination camps. Through the good offices of the church, he was given a new identity, as was a French collaborator who had assisted in his evil work.
After 50 years the renegade German, now enjoying a highly respectable old age as Mr Nightingale in England, is uncovered. He takes refuge in a Suffolk priory run by the order that once saved him from a war crimes trial. He claims the ancient right of sanctuary. The police are happy for him to remain there while they prepare for his trial. But one of the monks, Father Anselm, is delegated first by his prior and then by top Vatican officials to investigate the story and, in the process, to save the reputation of the church.
William Broderick includes a lengthy bibliography at the end of his first novel to show that he has done his homework – though some of the most critical books on the role of the papacy are missing, notably John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope and Daniel Goldhagen's recent A Moral Reckoning.
But it is Broderick's own background that makes him a fascinating chronicler of ecclesiastical intrigue. He was an Augustinian friar before abandoning his vocation and taking up a career as a barrister. The backdrop of the priory is evoked with exceptional skill and insight.
He is also a dab hand at plotting. The twists and turns of this tale of betrayal and retribution are labyrinthine and never allow you to dedicate anything less than total attention to the detail, to the potential detriment of Broderick's clear literary ambitions. As a page-turner, The Sixth Lamentation is a triumph.
So why did I finish it feeling profoundly uneasy? There is nothing you can point to as obviously wrong. Many others have written successful fiction based on the Holocaust, but I couldn't help wondering whether the subject matter was somehow being trivialised by shoe-horning it into a detective thriller. It is as if Auschwitz has been mixed up with a game of Cluedo.
At the heart of this book is the story of a Jewish woman separated in the most appalling circumstances from her husband and child. She believes them to be dead and accordingly lives her life in perpetual mourning, eyes permanently glazed, before succumbing to motor neurone disease. Her tragedy is heart-wrenching, yet somehow it struggles fully to come alive in such a plot-driven format. The dehumanising pain caused by the Holocaust is subtly sidelined to make room for suspense.
Peter Stanford's 'Heaven: A Traveller's Guide' is published by HarperCollins
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