|Father (Louis) Gilbert is a former Scotland Yard detective, who had become an Anglican priest now based at St Mark's in the small Sussex town of Hailsham. He is "a large man, barrel-chested and broad- shouldered", but with a "melancholy face". His wife had died of pancreatic cancer: "Her grace while dealing with cancer was an initial nudge towards a faith that had eluded him" but that would later lead him to ordination.
When we first meet him, he has recently returned from a lengthy sabbatical in a monastery to which he had been sent by his bishop "because of burn-out" after he had discovered family secrets, including the fact that he'd fathered a daughter by his first girlfriend. His bishop had regarded him as "out of control", although in church matters he regards himself as a firm traditionalist. He is very conscious of the presence of evil and believes that people can be possessed by it, and he himself has strange supernatural experiences in which ghostly figures appear before him.
Paul McCusker (1958 - ) grew up in Bowie, Maryland and graduated from college with a degree in journalism, but his first love was writing sketches and plays for his local Grace Baptist Church. Many of these were published and are still in print. In 1985, he moved to California and went on to find work as a freelance writer for the Focus on the Family radio drama called Family Portraits, which later became Adventures in Odyssey. Since joining the Focus staff as a writer, Paul has written over 300 half-hour episodes for Odyssey as well as 22 tie-in novels.
His radio work includes The Cost of Freedom (about Bonhoeffer) that won a Peabody award, dramatisations of CS Lewis, and the Father Gilbert mysteries. His novels include the Father Gilbert series (based on his radio plays) reviewed below.
Much influenced by a "high" Anglican church he had found during a stay in England, he converted to Catholicism in 2007 and now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado with his wife Elizabeth and their two children, Thomas and Elanor.
The Body Under the Bridge (2015)
The Body Under the Bridge starts with Father Gilbert experiencing an "unexplainable encounter" with a man who was to throw himself off the church tower. Later on he discovers that another clergyman had had a very similar dream - and this stretches the reader's credulity just too far, even ithough Father Gilbert had been left holding a gold medallion that the "man" had given him!
The discovery of a two-hundred-year-old body beneath an ancient bridge leads to the two deaths being linked. The mummified corpse under the bridge, a murder victim, reignites a centuries-old battle between two local families - the Todds and the aristocratic Hayshams. Then both David Todd and Lord Haysham begin to act strangely. They are fearful for reasons they won't explain. When Lord Haysham is murdered, David Todd is the prime suspect. Father Gilbert suspects that a secret occult society that engages in Black Masses may be responsible.
It makes an unusual story, full of surprises, though the discovery of dead body after dead body begins to get rather repetitious, and Father Gilbert's supernatural encounters are not always very convincing. Nor is his relationship with his curate, Father Hugh Benson, who, despite being in the parish for only a few weeks, seems incredibly confident and self-assured and does not hesitate to warn Father Gilbert of the dangers of being alone with the beautiful Mary Aston or to admonish him, "Sometimes you're more like a detective than a priest." He is right on both counts - but is it the sort of thing that a curate would say to his boss?
When thinking about his supernatural visitations (or whatever they are), Father Gilbert is reminded that "the story goes that J.B. Phillips, an Anglican clergyman and the translator of a popular addition of the New Testament, suffered from deep depression later in his life. Phillips was bedridden from the illness. The famous writer C.S, Lewis arrived on two occasions to say a few words that were particularly meaningful to Phillips at that time. Phillips was comforted. The only problem was that Lewis had died a few days before. Puzzled by this appearance of a dead man - who looked radiant with good health - Phillips confided the encounter with a retired Bishop who lived nearby. The Bishop said simply: 'This sort of thing is happening all the time.' "
By comparison, Gilbert's own visions (or whatever they are) seem quite unconvincing. Even Gilbert can sometimes joke about them, as when following the death of a police sergeant, the Chief Constable, asked him sarcastically, "DS Sanders didn't pay you a visit after he died, did he?"
"Father Gilbert responded in kind, 'The night is still young.' "
The Bishop too has his doubts about Gilbert's "experiences": I don't want you to lose your way again. Visions, hallucinations, visitations. It's all so freakish. You're really too valuable to be put back in a monastery." But then, Gilbert did not think the Bishop was "a deeply spiritual man, certainly not one would be able to discern the supernatural events of the past few days." But you cannot help feeling that the Bishop had a point! Still, it makes an interesting, if improbable, story.
Death in the Shadows (2016)
Death in the Shadows sees Father Gilbert being sent by his bishop (who wants to keep an eye on him) to an interdenominational conference on "Issues Facing the Church", held in a seaside town where he has yet another supernatural encounter, this time with a murdered Chinese girl who had worked at a local massage parlour - and there is a young woman who sees the same apparitions that Father Gilbert had thought only he could see. Details of the murder lead Father Gilbert to approach the police with clues in common with other cases, bringing him into contact with a detective from his days with Scotland Yard.
Meanwhile, a local monastery has been vandalized, with grotesque images and profane graffiti defacing the altar and walls. The head of the monastery, from whom Father Gilbert had received spiritual direction a couple of years before, is distressed by the attack, accusing the local sex trade industry of retaliating against his outspoken stand against it. Then, one of the brothers at the monastery is found dead in the local red light district. All evidence points to his having been a regular at a massage parlour - the same one where the murdered girl had worked.
This has a a more convincing background than the first book in the series. It gets off to a gripping start and holds the attention throughout. It is no wonder that Father Gilbert found he "couldn't concentrate on church issues while his mind was on murder, death, confessions, missing girls, a missing priest, and the mysterious dead that seem to show up randomly regardless of time or place." He was so busy doing his detective work that he had very little time to attend the religious conference where he knew that. like him, his fellow clergy "were impaired humans with deep secrets they dared not admit to anyone, ever".
The least convincing parts of the story are his "unexplainable encounters where the dead or dying suddenly showed up" or when he "found himself playing out a scene with cryptic conversations and bewildering actions that connected to unfolding events. Usually, they were unrelated to him personally, making him feel as if he'd been dropped into some other time or place, a character in someone else's story." And all the time, he seems to be followed by a mysterious dark figure whom he calls the Shadow Man and knows to be a demon. Not surprisingly, "He mused about the state of his life, that it had come to regular encounters with demons." And so do we!
Nevertheless there is plenty of action, the locations ranging from seedy massage parlours to the conference itself are convincingly described (although even here mysterious spirits from the past make an unwelcome appearance), and there is a real sense of excitement when Father Gilbert manages to get himself kidnapped.
The author has his own website.and there is an interesting interview with him about his religious beliefs on the National Cathoiic Register site.
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