(creator: Alison Joseph)
Sister Agnes (her full name is Agnes Bourdillon) is a very contemporary figure. She had been a nun for 15 years, and indeed still is, but is now allowed to live by herself in a bedsit where, at first, she works on a project for runaway teenagers, run by her old friend, Father Julius. It was he who "had managed to persuade the Archdiocese to employ her, even though theirs was an Order which preferred to keep its sisters firmly within its own four walls . An unusual arrangement .... but then Agnes had never been an ordinary nun". (The understatement of the year?) She had been brought up in France by parents who largely ignored her and then been married to the sexually aggressive and violent Hugh Bourdillon, with whom she meets up again in the first book, Sacred Hearts. It was Father Julius, who, as a young curate in France, had rescued her from her husband's clutches and found a place for her in a convent.
She is very conscious of "all the anguish, the battles with her superiors that had resulted in her final ejection. ... For more than fifteen years she had been locked in a battle where the forces of doubt and reason had raged against the quiet mysteries of the convent. ... She had heard the voice of God himself calling to her, and she had deliberately covered her ears". Yet she remains a nun: "I made vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. Nothing's changed .... It's been an awkward compromise .... but I'm as much a nun as I ever was .... My faith is etched right through me". She still seems to have major problems with those vows, though, especially that of chastity - she is the most sexually explicit of the clerical nuns.
Sister Agnes is the creation of Alison Joseph (1959- ) who was born in North London, graduated in French and Philosophy at Leeds University, became a presenter on a local radio station, then moved back to London to work on Channel Four. In 1985 she founded an independent production company, Works on Screen. She is also the author of some original radio dramas and has adapted novels for BBC Radio 4. She is married with three children.
She told the Bradford Telegraph & Argus that ""Sister Agnes is a character who has developed over the years. I spent a lot of time thinking about detectives and found the most successful ones were those without any ties, such as Phillip Marlowe. So I chose a nun as it's difficult to think of a female character who doesn't have anyone relying on her, such as a mother, daughter, or partner."
Sacred Hearts (1994)
Even Hugh's manservant has no hesitation in telling her, at their very first meeting, that Philippa had been blackmailing men. Agnes later discovers that her victims were all transvestites. She even manages to question Hugh: "Must you play detectives?", he complains. "It's so tiresome." But there's no stopping her.
She is well seen in action when two very nondescript men try to pick up her and her new friend Agatha in a pub: "Come on," said Frank. "Let's go somewhere. I've got the BMW outside." "You mean the K reg. seven-series in the car park?" asked Agnes suddenly. Frank and Dave stared. "Yeah." "Three-way catalytic convertor, sixteen-valver, nought to sixty in eight point five -" They stared some more ... She turned sweetly to Dave, "So the C reg. Ford Escort parked next to it must be yours?" Dave nodded, suddenly sullen. "What a shame," Agnes continued. "At the convent we had a fleet of Jags, until we replaced them with Peugeots."
She has her holier moments, though: "Here she was, a nun, installed in a hotel room by her ex-husband, surrounded by flowers sent by him, and about to have her dress sense reawakened by a woman who was possibly his mistress ... She got up from the bed, and for the next twenty minutes was lost in prayer, in preparation for the day, absorbed in contemplation of the holy mysteries that wove like a silken thread through her very being. Emerging once again into more worldly things, she decided to visit the police." But even she cannot always secure their help: "Inspector Lowry was adamant. 'I'm sorry, Sister, our files are classified information, We can't show them to any passing bod who asks to see them.' " It's good to have a touch of realism breaking in here, although I'm not too sure if a police inspector would really be so casual as to refer to "any passing bod".
Amongst those whom Agnes interviews is the local vicar, "the Reverend Just-Call-Me-Bob" Evans, who described Philippa as "a recent acquaintance, but, I may say, one of my successes."
Eventually Agnes solves the murder(s). Not all the characters are totally convincing, but the religious background is well handled, even if Agnes' own position as a very independent minded nun seems distinctly unusual, but her own religious motivation shines through: "Agnes sat in the soft darkness of the confessional, calling to mind her sins .... With relief she settled for the old familiar words, with relief she received her penance and her absolution."
But Hugh still lusts after her: " 'I've never fucked a nun before,' he laughed, caressing her body, which was still and cold, oblivious of her lack of response." Then she threw a large terracotta pot at him, knocking him out. Yet, as she later told Father Julian, "I'm as bad as he is ... Within me there lurks all the badness, all the warped, perverted desires - however bad he can be, I respond with worse ... I'm beyond saving." But Father Julius, at least, always has time for her. And it all makes entertaining reading.
The Hour of Our Death (1995)
Sister Agnes is prepared to do just about everything, including burglary if necessary. And when she falls in love, she is prepared to break her vow of chastity: "For reasons she could barely understand, she had deliberately, joyfully even, broken her vows" And she wept. As she's not very strong on obedience either, and does not go in too much for poverty, she seems fortunate to belong to an order that accepts her. "My previous order was Benedictine," she explains. "... and now I'm in a more open order, an Ignation order". All this stretches belief a bit, but she certainly comes across as a real and vital person.
Her religious lfe, though, is far from over. Her life in the order, "was the only life she could imagine now, for her, the only possible way to make sense of the world. Life without faith, she thought. It was unthinkable. And is it Thy will, she asked God, that I should go sniffing round the hospital in search of evil?" Father Julius thought not, and Agnes suspected that "Julius is always bloody right." But her old friend, worldy Athena, is always at hand to encourage her. It's she who sums up everything at the end when she says, "Well, that's that, then. Our two affairs started and finished .... and a murder or two. Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?" And she took a large swig of white wine.
It is the grand old patient, Kathleen, whom Agnes befriends in the hospital, and gets to act as her spy, who, when told at the end of the book that Agnes is to go off on retreat for a fortnifght with the Holy Sisters, says, "Holy Sisters, eh?"
The Quick and the Dead (1996)
Agnes is still "part of an open order, whose London base was a house in Hackney, but whose sisters lived and worked wherever the order thought fit". However, her superior, Sister Christine, warns her "that I might be getting too involved with the hostel kids, at the expense of my religious life. How can you be too involved? There is no such thing". They even suggest she should take a year away from London, teaching French at a school in Yorkshire. But first, she's determined to find and rescue Sam - and, as always, she seems to get away with doing exactly what she wants. "Just - sometimes - give yourself some peace," her old friend long-suffering Father Julius advises her. But she follows her own uphill path.
One of her protagonists in this story is the evangelist pastor, Ross Turner, but she cannot accept his constant harping on the devil. "What there is of Satan in me - it's me ... it's a distraction to call it Satan. I'd rather take responsibility for what I am, including the potential to do harm". I found all this, as well as the account of her bouncy friend Athena's reaction on finding herself pregnant, of much more interest than the more sketchily drawn teenagers living up in the trees. It is the religious issues that remain in the memory, as when Agnes questioned the whole idea of God as father: "What is God, then?" she wondered. "This benign omnipotent deity who loves us unconditionally, like a father, we're told. Like a father? What do I know of fatherhood but neglect? And what does Sam know, but her step-father's abuse?"
As Agnes' faith seems to be wavering, Father Julius gets increasingly concerned, as does Agnes herself. Meanwhile, the main plot about the protestors seems to get unduly prolonged, and, as chapter follows chapter, it seems that the final outcome is being endlessly postponed. At the very end, though, Agnes agrees to go off to teach in Yorkshire. "Acceptance," she says. "If I can learn that, I'll be getting somewhere". But it's not one of the author's best books.
A Dark and Sinful Death (1997)
However, Agnes' own problems and beliefs still hold the interest. "It's Ash Wednesday," she reminds one of the other nuns. "We're supposed to be reflecting on our sins".
When the non-believing school chaplain, Father Elias, tells her, "I feel like you. Out of place", she asks him, "What is your God, then?"
And she faces up to the ultimate problem of all believers: "You do nothing," she accuses God, " ... in the face of ... the thousand incidents of human tragedy that happen every second in the world. You wait, and You ask us to believe in You, the God of Love." And later she demands, "What the hell do You want us to do? What do You want me to do?" And eventually she realises, "The greater good is all about accepting what is, rather than ceaselessly striving for what might be ... Maybe happiness isn't what we're here for." She wonders whether she should stay in her order or go off on a world cruise with a dying friend of her father's. It's not every nun who gets this sort of choice - but, in this case, it's all decided for her, if in a rather predictable way.
The Dying Light (1999)
On top of all that, Agnes' own mother ("a silly, spiteful old woman") is dying in France and when Agnes does go to visit her, her mother seems quite deliberately to refuse to recognise her. With all these interesting characters, it seems a pity that lengthy explanations of what might or might not have happened go on for quite so long, and the grand climax in the subterranean tunnels of the Jubilee Line (specially researched for this book) isn't all that convincing.
Problems certainly pile up for Agnes: "There was Mal remanded in custody, Cliff shot dead, Cally in distress .... There was the mysterious Claire. There was Athena hurtling towards self-destruction. There was Janette. And there was her own mother." Very much an ordinary situation for Agnes, in fact. Then there were the men. "If you ask me," Athena tells her, "men are from some universe so many million light years away they haven't evolved the power of speech at all, and they're still wallowing in mud and grunting at each other."
Agnes is prepared to do anything to follow the trail she has set herself, and typically goes off to Merthy Tydfil for a few days without even bothering to tell her order where she is, let alone asking their permission, so as to interview someone she thinks might help her investigations . She is seen at her best when making relationships, as with old Father Julius and Athena, and again comes across as a real and likeable character, who despite constant prayer and attendance at worship, is ever ready to question her own motives and behaviour. And, despite everything, she still values her order: "At least it's given me a structure in which to have faith, to believe in myself, probably for the first time in my life".
It's Father Julius who tells her, "I fear for you .... You end up putting yourself in danger, deliberately. You seem to seek out some downward path into dark places and then you follow it. And each time, you check with me before you go .... Each time I say, don't go. And each time I know you will. But if it's the Lord's voice who calls you, then who am I to argue?" No wonder she constantly turns to him.
The Night Watch (2000)
Then there's Father Julius' old friend Patrick Kavanagh, one of three brothers. The other two are the mentally handicapped Tad, a well-drawn and sympathetic figure, and Mathias who is killed (murdered?) in a riding accident when he is apparently hit by a stray golfball. Agnes pieces together connections between the victims and local landowners that are not obvious to other people. As Father Julius tells her, she is good at "seeing meaning in things, in random events. Seeing patterns". But she can't help worrying that perhaps everything is random and "that even with God all these things might be meaningless. ... for all we know, the universe may be quite meaningless, a collection of particles, gas and dust, and all the events we experience may have no meaning, not only to us, but in some kind of absolute sense ... The problem is I'm turning into an atheist". This makes it very difficult for her to offer any encouragement to the novices, one of whom finds out the hard way that God doesn't simply answer prayers in the way she had fervently believed.
Agnes becomes increasingly curious and concerned about a long-ago love affair involving her old friend and advisor Father Julius, when he'd still been in seminary in Ireland, the memory of which seems to make him very disturbed and unhappy. Had he been right to leave his girl and pursue a career in the church? And Agnes also has to decide her own future: should she take her final vows or go off to live in the house in Provence that she inherited when her mother died, and where she'd grown up "in a childhood of affluence mixed with neglect"? So there's a lot going on in this book, even if Agnes' own hesitations about her faith are similar to those voiced in previous episodes.
Agnes herself is described by Father Julius as a "danger addict". She has little peace of mind: "For me, there's only doubt. And struggle. And a sense of falling short." When asked by the novice Helen why she's still in the order, she explains, "What's kept me here all the years, is that I am here. That's all." Meanwhile she can go off to meet her old friend Athena in the nearest wine bar. But the basic religious questions remain: Is religious belief really any more than "just chemical reactions in the brain?"
When it comes to the evil in the world, her novice Helen asks, "What does he (God) think that he's doing? Like, did he just wind up his creation all those centuries ago and leave it to run, then bugger off and do something more interesting? Because if this is the best he can do, it's pretty poor, really, isn't it?" These are the questions that seem to preoccupy the writer and grow more and more important from book to book. But there can be no easy solution for Agnes. In the end she realises, that for her there can be "no leap into faith .... Not just yet. No big gamble. Just the steady, daily acceptance that this is how it is, that this is how my story continues to unfold. And it took Helen, who's all those years younger than me to say it. That it's fragile and difficult and uncertain, yet you stay anyway."
The Darkening Sky (2004)
She sets out to find his attacker and gets involved in a group of ex- servicemen and others who'd originally grown up together on a Glasgow estate. It's all gets very long drawn-out and confusing as suggested in the following passage in which Agnes tries to explain the plot so far to Athena: "There's poor Mitch, yes, who was found holding the broken bottle. But, you see, we went to see this woman, Jeanie recognised her. There's a group of men from Scotland who Andy and Alasdair grew up with, and one of them rented a flat near here, and now his wife's joined him, and another bloke called Sean who Alastair knew. But Alasdair was wondering what the Scottish lot, as he calls them, are doing in London, and so near where Andy was living, apart from looking for work which he said they might be quite legitimately doing, except as Gordon said, why are they so near the hostel, and Janet came to find Andy on the night that he died, except she lied when I asked her, and she spoke to Jeanie, who's frightened of her dealer and that's another problem I should be addressing really. And Gordon's going to come and see Aladair and me this afternoon..."
Meanwhile Agnes really has to decide her future : should she take her final vows even though this would mean giving up the lovely house she has inherited in Provence? Her superior, Sister Christiane, reassures her, "You are a valued member of the community. More to the point, I am not aware that you have expressed any doubts about your vocation." How little she knows!
Then Father Julius is diagnosed with cancer. He eventually admits to her that he is "absolutely terrified". Agnes feels she cannot live without him and is distraught: "Pray for me, Julius had said to her. Yes, she'd said, of course. And now there were no words. Only tears. And rage. And silence." Then later she tries to reassure him about the forthcoming exploratory operation on his colon: " 'Julius, it will be all right.' Agnes heard the empty certainty of her words, and her eyes swelled with tears.
Let the last word be with Agnes: ''O Lord, my hope is in you,' she thought. The thinnest, most fragile hope, she thought. But hope all the same." Then, true to form, she follows her acceptance into her order with a champagne reception. Believe that, and you'll believe the whole plot.
Shadow of Death (2007 )
But there are also references to a magic crystal which seems to be attracting the interest of two competing potential buyers, including the sinister but superficially charming cult leader, Pastor Malcolm. Agnes then discovers an abandoned little girl who subsequently disappears, along with one of the nuns. Agnes goes on to find the little girl's dead mother lying out on the steps. And all the time she seems to hear strange sounds (a barking dog and the sound of someone crying) in the old building. It's as though she could feel the history below the house "seeping through the cracks".
It makes a strong story, told in a very realistic and interesting way. But there is more to it than that: there's an ever-present questioning of the existence or not of a loving God. The absurdity of such a belief is frequently stressed by another occupant of the building, Dr Philip Sayer, who is a psychiatrist with a disturbed and depressed wife, Serena, who, he tells Agnes, "seems to think there is an old man in the sky who has plans for her. She prays to him .... it is part of her illness". As for himself, "I work in a world of evidence, you see. It's at the heart of my work. I'm a scientist .... It's all about proof." Faith, on the other hand, he says, "is believing in something you know can't possibly be true".
She tells Father Julius that "sometimes people's idea of God drives them to behave very badly".
There is plenty of action to sustain the interest, and only once (when Malcolm suddenly produces a gun) is it in danger of descending into melodrama. It ends with Agnes possibly having to give up some of her prized independence. "Are you really going back to live in the convent?" asks her friend Athena.
Then right at the end old Father Julius tells her, "People who believe in magic, they're expecting answers .... We're different. We know there are no answers. We're ahead of the game." It's no easy faith for either him or Agnes. Recommended.
Meanwhile Agnes is plagued by doubts about her own motivation in becoming a nun. Was it just to run away from real life? And she finds she has other problems too when she meets the intriguing American geologist Dr Bretton Laing ("Most people call me Brett") and learns about about her solitary and eccentric father's last years and his increasing preoccupation with creationist ideas.
The most interesting parts of the story are those dealing with these creationist ideas and the interplay between Agnes and her old friends, the entertaining Athena (busy planning to get married), and Father Julius who had been seriously ill. "I caught a glimpse of death, in those weeks," he tells her, "and now I know, more clearly than I have ever known, what it is to cling to life." It is he who tells her, "I prefer evolution (to creationism). as a model of God's intervention, I mean. Adam having to name the animals, for example. It puts us in a very odd relationship with God. I'd rather that God did it. I don't see what's so funny," he added, as Agnes began to laugh.
The author faces up to real issues about suffering and belief and Agnes is certainly one to avoid glib answers. She struggles, for example, to find a hospice to look after a woman dying of cancer who wants to escape from her bullying husband, and she is not afraid to stand up to him either.
It is an American nun, Louisa, who is thinking of leaving the Order, who tells her, "My spiritual director lent me a book a month or two ago. I think she had a sense that I was struggling. And there was a line in it that came to mind this morning in Chapel, during the reading ... it was all about meeting Jesus in the Gospels. Walking with him ... you know that stuff. I suddenly thought, but we don't, do we? We don't meet Jesus, or God, or Our Lady, or anyone. It's all just stories. And I don't mind that. As stories go with they're pretty good - but to give up your whole life for a story? It gets like believing in fairies. At best it is wishful thinking, at worst it seems to me it's self-deception."
Unfortunately the least effective part of the book is the main storyline involving the hostel residents and their contacts. Their characters are less clearly established, and it is difficult to feel very involved with them. So in the end, solving the murders turns out to be rather less interesting than the author must have hoped.
|The dust covers get (slightly) less anguished as the series proceeds.|