Father Alfonso

(creator: N J Matthews)


N J Matthews
Father Alfonso Bonconcini Is a retired Roman Catholic priest, with "gray hair .... standing up in disarray 'round the baldspot on the top of his head .... He was not more than 5 ft 4 inches in height , a rotund man of 60 something, his wire-rimmed glasses were in danger of slipping off his Roman nose." He had been Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham, the Catholic University, but had been retired by "mutual agreement" because "the hierarchy were not in synchronicity with my views on religion .... They didn't like my take on the Church's role in the persecution and murder of what at the time they considered to be heretics." Alfonso had argued that "True believers lose their perspective .... Wars are fought by true believers, on all sides, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh .... More lives are lost in the name of religion than by any plague or pestilence".

He drinks a great deal of cognac, preferably Corvousier (also spelt in this book as Courvosier - although the correct spelling is Courvoisier!), and becomes the good (indeed, almost the only) friend of Dave Harris, the Chief of Detectives in the Metropolitan Toronto Police Department. Harris finds it useful to use him as a sounding board, for he knows that his confidentiality can be relied on. Alfonso himself welcomes not only the cognac, but "the excitement (that) was building within him. The thought that he might contribute in some way to catching the killer made him feel giddy." Otherwise, as he explains, "I live in the past of most of the time and I find it a very lonely place".

His particular expertise in medieval manuscripts proves invaluable, and he also has a good friend in Rabbi Yitzak Levit who appears in the second book where he helps him translate from the Hebrew, and with whom he enjoys a weekly game of bridge.

N(orman) J Matthews (1932 - ) was born and educated in the city of Toronto but moved to Winnipeg in 1959. He owned and operated a manufacturing business for 15 years and then was Chief Executive Officer for several multi-million dollar companies before spending 12 years as a self employed Management Consultant. He is married with three daughters and five grandsons. He says that he has had a lifelong interest in writing and in mystery novels in particular. He self-published his first novel Singularity in 2004 and followed this with three more novels featuring Chief of Detectives Dave Harris, as described below, as well as a novel set in Ancient Rome. Father Alfonso does not appear in the first of the four Dave Harris books, Singularity, so it is not reviewed here.

The Sophia (2005)
The Sophia is a strange religious sect that "base their worship and practices on the early Gnostic religion practised by the Cathars in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries". Cathars believe "in a duality, there is God, the Supreme Being, the spirit and his son Jesus a part of God. In their view, God created the spiritual universe. But they also believe in a lesser God, the 'Demiurge' who created the earth and all things material, all corrupt things. So in their minds, all evil is attributable to the Demiurge, they abhor this lesser God but they greatly fear him."

The local Sophia is led by seven old ladies who live in expensive condominiums, and, under the guise of the Dunston Estate Croquet and Lawn Bowling Club, hold regular meetings of their followers. They are responsible for guarding the Mandylion, a cloth imprint of Christ's head. But this gets stolen, and the dead body of one of the old ladies is found, with "a croquet hoop, driven right through her, impaling her body to the turf".

It is time to send for Dave Harris, the Metropolitan Toronto Police Department's newly promoted Chief of Detectives. After a knock on the head, he starts seeing strange things, and is visited (or thinks he is visited) by a strange ill-clad figure always accompanied by a "sickening sweet putrid smell", who offers him warnings, advice and encouragement. This strange person is, he tells Harris, out of his " proper time and space". Harris, understandably bewildered by all of this, asks Father Alfonso for his help, which is readily given - especially if Harris brings along a bottle of cognac. It all sounds incredibly silly and yet it still makes quite a strong and interesting story.

The author has his own highly idiosyncratic way of dispensing with punctuation marks, as when he writes: "This must be the work of the Demiurge, such evil, who else would it be There was no time to perform The Consolamentum". Or when Harris says, "What'd he hit me with a brick I bet". You sometimes have to read such sentences several times to grasp what is meant. He also uses underlining when other publishers would use italics, as when Harris's girl friend tells him, "The only vacuum I know about is between your ears".

More examples of this lack of punctuation are given in the review of The Sign of Nun below. He also seems to confine paragraphs to a maximum of three or four lines, and often gives us a character's thoughts in italics. The language too sometimes sounds rather stilted as when Harris rang the doorbell and "Magdelene Whittaker responded" or, when a king in what is now Turkey was stricken with leprosy and sent a letter to Jesus asking him for help, and "Jesus was unable to attend him because of a conflicting mission".

However there are some interesting lively characters, such as the ever- grasping Reverend Jethro Scrase, and a crooked police inspector, and there's no lack of dramatic action, including a major fire which destroys the scene of the crime and, Harris wonders, perhaps some of the Sophia as well. The fire chief tells him, "I have know (sic) way of knowing how many might have been in there". But it goes on to build up an exciting if rather melodramatic gun-fighting climax, after which Harris lies unconscious for a fortnight before waking up, immediately restored, it seems, to full health and vigor. But, despite all the oddities, the author has a real talent for storytelling - and he has certainly done his research.

The Sign of Nun (2005)
The Sign of Nun sees a serial killer loose on the campus of Toronto University. Preying exclusively on young women, the killer carefully arranges each body and leaves a cloth, marked with a different Hebrew letter, over each face. Dave Harris, Chief of Detectives at the Metro Toronto Police Department, turns to his friend Father Alfonso for help. Alfonso tells him that the letter nun, found on the first body, is the 14th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but he says, "I think you need more help than I can give you. The complexities of the Hebrew language are many and, sad to say; I don't know all of it." So he persuades him to let him also involve his younger friend, Yitzak Levet, a rabbi with whom he plays bridge. It is Yitzak's knowledge of Aramaic that eventually leads him to decipher anagrams that will, it is hoped, identify the murderer.

The two stay very much in the background, but they make a strong team even if in this book it is Yitzak's expertise that really counts, although, towards the end, after there have been as many as six murders, it is Alfonso who has a bright idea. Unfortunately it does not work out, but Harris reassures him, "I really do appreciate all that you and Zak have done. Don't forget that if it weren't for you two, I wouldn't have known the identity of the other two women. At least they are safe."
"Yes, I suppose so, but we so wanted to be part of solving these crimes." "You have been believe me."
Right at the end, when Alfonso asks Harris why he seemed to be taking such particular interest in a particularly beautiful lady suspect, Harris realises, "The old man can see right through me".

Every now and then we are told what's going on in the unidentified murderer's head, as when he hears his murdered mother say to him: I haven't gone away you know. You're nothing more than a pretentious little turd, worthless, worthless to yourself and worthless to me.
-- Leave me alone. Can't you see I'm working?
-- Working? Turd you don't know what work is. Listen to me. You are nothing without me. The only greatness you can achieve is by listening to me. You must KILL THEM ALL.
-- You can't afford to waste time, DO IT NOW. If you waste time you will be caught.
-- They will never catch me. I'm too brilliant and you know that. Those fools couldn't catch me even if I give them a map.
And later on, he tells her: Shut up mother. Oh how I wish I could kill you all over again. I would so enjoy it .... Leave me. I will hear you no more. You are shut out of my mind. Chief of Detectives David Harris, yes you are my protagonist. But you worthy of being my opponent? We'll see. You are about to be tested again, tomorrow to be exact.
This is not too convincing (even if the killer is schizophrenic) and sometimes the reader is not even sure who is speaking.

We also hear some of the other characters' thoughts which sound even more unlikely, as when the murderer covers the victim's mouth with a gloved hand and the dying girl thinks: Mary mother of God. Whets (sic) happening to me? I can taste rubber. Latex I think. I might be killed? But why? I can't cry out. Pain. Oh the Pain. In my back. It burns so. Why is it suddenly so cold? I can't struggle, I grow weak. My heart pounds. Everything is growing dim, darkness surrounds me. Mother I'm coming." And so she dies.

Even the rabbi, when asked to examine an illuminated book with a Morocco binding found in the backpack of the first victim, thinks all this to himself: "The illumination of the first letter of each verse is extraordinary. The gilding has been superbly done. I must spend time on each of these letters, the illumination itself tells a story. The figures intertwined may have some meaning in this case. It's hard for me to believe that any murderer could be capable of creating such a thing of beauty. Yes, it is Aramaic, it looks like it's written in the Imperial Dialect. I'm a bit rusty but once I get started I should be okay."
It all sounds over-literary, even stilted.

The author still has his own style of punctuation, using quotation marks in an inconsistent way, and, as in the earlier book, there seem numerous proof-reading mistakes such as the whets in the passage above. So there are references to a young "pries", and we are told: "I'll will just will her away" and "What I can tell you is that both were stabbing victims beyond that, I can"t (sic) tell you more." And Harris, who had been anticipating a telephone call, "knew he couldnot ' (sic) avoid it". Sometimes you have to work hard to work out what the author actually means as when Harris addresses the lawyer Lance Chaucer: "Hullo to you to Lance". What he presumably means is, "Hello to you too, Lance".

Yet, despite all this, it still makes an attention-holding (if not always entirely original) story, and at times it is even an exciting one, as when Harris investigates a secret society with mystical overtones whose "objective is the seeking of enlightenment and meaning in this world and the next", and tries to prevent another killing. The final solution is not entirely satisfying, but Harris, and some of the other participants, including a young policeman and the student activist he is sent to protect, make quite interesting characters.

Wee Johnnie Norrie (2005)
Wee Johnnie Norrie starts with the discovery of the small misshapen body of middle-aged MS victim Johnnie Norrie lying on the bed of his flat in which he had died two years earlier. Chief of Detectives Dave Harris sets out on a complicated and dangerous trail to find out what had happened, but it is not until a whole series of further murders have taken place that he is able to unmask an amazing plot, involving the feds, The Corporation and the usual mystery boss, hidden (for a time at least) behind the scenes, a plot which eventually leads to the overthrow of the entire Canadian government!

It seems a little odd that the book is called Wee Johnnie Norrie because very little is actually said about him, beyond a flashback to him being bullied at school. Father Alfonso, although he turns out to have had a three year affair (almost fifty years before, but "the happiest three years of my life") with a suspect who has since got murdered, has a guilty conscience about abandoning her so long ago: "She accused me of loving the church more than her. When she said that, I suddenly realised that she was right." He feels now that somehow he might have been "responsible for her unhappy life. Could I have made other choices that would have given her a better life?" In this book, Alfonso himself does not actually do any detecting. It's just that Harris finds it helpful to get his own mind straight by recounting his cases to him, so that his thoughts can sometimes be clarified by Alfonso's shrewd questioning.

There are some interesting characters such as "Dragonlady" Christine Vincent, the beautiful new Forensics doctor, whom Harris soon gets to admire, and the unscrupulous ever-elusive Duncan, chauffeur and hit man, who has a certain charisma despite his murderous behavior: "Duncan wrapped his right arm around Hiller's neck and with his left he snapped it like an asparagus".

There is the usual confusion about punctuation with sentences like, "That could be easily arranged. He said as he took her glass." And "OK, get the fucker up. Said Hitchcock." And " What did you tell Bruce was money for Grebe?"

And, as before, most of the story is told either as dialogue or as characters' thoughts, usually expressed in italics but not always! Right at the end, Harris tells Alphonso, "I look at my own life father and I wonder how I might end up, I see similarities between Norrie and me. I focus on the wrongdoers at the exclusion of almost everything and everyone else. Surely there must be more to life?"
"There is David. What you do is necessary, unfortunately so, and you are good at it. But it must not be all you do. Do not use your vocation as an excuse to turn away from the normal world, as I did."
This is an interesting conclusion and the whole book might have been more successful if it had been a theme that had been explored more comprehensively. As it is, there is a more conventional plot than with the previous books, and although quite fast moving and action packed, it lacks the religious background of the earlier stories, and ends up by being rather less appealing.


The author has his own website called MurderClub from where his books may be ordered.



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The Sophia cover
Wee Johnnie Norrie cover
The books are all self published by the author's own publishing firm.
Wee Johnnie Norrie's pages are too tightly bound to make reading easy. Otherwise, the books look quite handsomely produced. It's a pity, though, that the punctuation is so erratic.
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