Dom Erkenwald and Det. Insp. Morgan

(creator: Pauline King)

Pauline King
Dom Erkenwald had, for eight years, been the headmaster of Amblehurst, a Roman Catholic boarding school attached to an old monastery. He is "a man of considerable distinction" who "looked even taller and more impressive in his black monk's habit than he did on the TV screen, but his quiet and gentle manner was disarming". The qualities that Detective Inspector Morgan immediately noticed in him were his "humility, sense of humour, (and) love of people". He knows and understands his pupils and his staff, is "a shrewd judge of men" and, according to the school doctor, "has enough compassion to take on the problem of the whole world. Sympathy, empathy, and infinite capacity for love. I don't know what you call it but I do know that it's Christ-like. I believe it's the secret of his whole life here and why he's made such a success of his job. For him the reason for living is - loving." To his pupils,though, he is just "The Erk". It is he who first identifies the murderer.

Detective Inspector Evan Morgan is Welsh and "a devout Wesleyan Methodist with ecumenical tendencies" with a Baptist grandfather, who, despite his initial doubts, is impressed by the school where he was "vastly entertained by everything he saw and heard, and the warm hospitality and absence of tension were like balm to the spirit. They provided a refreshing contrast to the squalid scenes which had surrounded most of the murders he had been sent to investigate .... His much- loved wife had died ten years previously and he had never ceased to miss her warmth and companionship. There was always his work - and television - but nothing can compensate for the deep loneliness, the price one paid, as a widower, for having had a happy marriage." He was "a gentle and charming policeman".

Pauline King (1917 - 2013) had, as parent, sister, wife, teacher, and member of the board of governors, personal experience of five schools similar to Amblehurst. A former nurse, she was long involved in Anglican/Roman Catholic ecumenical work, and she spent six years as director of the county branch of the British Red Cross. She lived in Bath. Snares of the Enemy was her first and only novel. I would welcome more information about her, including her dates.

Snares of the Enemy (1985)
Snares of the Enemy is set at Amblehurst School. It starts with the discovery of Matron Mary O'Connell's body which is strangely found lying in the monk's private area. She had been stabbed to death. Detective Inspector Evan Morgan sets about questioning the monks, lay staff, and some of the pupils. His interviewees include Charles Bolton, a young schoolmaster, whose love affairs with the maids had aroused the matron's hostility, and Miss Meldson, the housekeeper, Matron's long-time foe in the domestic arena, who is, as the headmaster tells Morgan, "Altogether the most offensive product of a convent school that I have encountered in years of experience". It is she who announces to Morgan, "I can allow you just forty minutes," and finally leaves the inspector feeling "that he had been steamrollered". Meanwhile Dom Erkenwald, the headmaster, has to keep the school running smoothly. It is his perspicacity that makes him realise, when Morgan was "at a loss as to the next step to take in this case", that "there was a false note somewhere" and this eventually leads him to identify the murderer.

It offers a convincing, sympathetic portrayal of the school setting, with lively and interesting characters, such as the ex-pupil, old Father Knox-Wesley ("whose name gives him immense pleasure"), who says shocking things and "is a law unto himself.... At his age, the temptation to shock people, though reprehensible, is well-nigh irresistible." But later on he stops joking when he tells Morgan why he values the service of Compline: "As a boy, I lost both parents in a cholera epidemic; my father was serving in India and I had no brothers or sisters. I was really too young to be allowed to come up to Compline but my housemaster was an understanding man and turned a blind eye. Night after night I came up and released my sorrow until peace came and wrapped me in a mantle of protection and comfort." Then there was Brother Charles who was "an exemplary religious, and, as such, a trial to his brother novices: for it has justly been said that the martyrs are those who have to live with the saints".

The author's gentle sense of humor is particularly evident at the start of the book, as when Matron's dead body is discovered by the novice master who "as an avid reader of detective stories .... knew better than to touch the corpse". Then it is the school's solicitor who, Erkenwald says, "has a soothing way with the Press. D'you remember when the Spanish chef cut his throat and he persuaded a reporter to put in a meagre paragraph? He said: 'I'm sure you wouldn't want to blow up anything so banal!' And the fellow agreed with him !" And there was a particularly bad tempered monk called Dom Placid, "whose name in religion had been chosen for him by an abbot and novice-master with a sense of humour."

Towards the end, though, things get much more serious when the Abbot has a long interview with the murderer and is able to reassure the guilty one: "If a murderer repents, this makes it possible for him to begin to share in Christ's universal and timeless sacrifice .... When you have recovered from the shock of realising what you have done you will be able to understand. And I shall remind you, if I may, that you are able to join yourself with the sacrifice of Christ. In unity with Him, you can even begin to love those whom you have murdered. Nothing is lost forever - or it need not be. Everything- even the effects of sin - can be united together in Christ, with His love enfolding you all."

The author obviously thinks highly of schools like this one, even if, as the Procurator admits to Morgan, the boys "are a bit starved of female companionship here and the attributes of nurses, maids and cleaners don't go unremarked."
"You don't select women for the plainness of their appearance, then?" asked Morgan.
"No! For good references! A few are so attractive you may find this hard to believe - but, for all that, the generic term for a woman in this school is hag." But the school prides itself on its family atmosphere, and headmaster Erkenwald's compassionate understanding of his pupils shines through.

Old Boys, we are told, would come back to the school where, if they wished, they "could be sure of finding someone ready to listen and advise and, in a world where people are in a perpetual hurry and appeals in sympathy and personal concern are often unheeded, this was valuable." And, unlikely though it sounds, they could even show off their "serious" girlfriends to their old Housemasters for approval.

Morgan, "a Christian of another denomination - in many ways opposed to and distrustful of Roman Catholicism - rejoiced to think that wherever his work might take him, whatever sordid task might fall to his lot, always - at this time of night - there would be some whose duty and vocation brought them here to commend the world and all mankind to God."

It is an interesting story that successfully takes us into another world, and makes me wish that the author had gone on to write more.

There is nothing about the author on the web.

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Snares of the Enemy cover
This is the 1986 American edition. The book is more amusing than the cover suggests.
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