The seal of the confessional

The second of two guest posts this week (three if you count Tammy’s regular journal entry on Thursday). This time it’s Anna Legat talking about one of the key issues in her new novel, Broken.

Father Joseph is one of the two main protagonists of my domestic noir thriller, Broken. He is a catholic priest who receives disturbing confessions from a psychopathic killer he nicknames the Prophet. There is very little contrition in the Prophet’s confessions. Instead of remorse, there is triumph and self-righteousness. The Prophet is boasting about murdering innocent women, safe in the knowledge that his deeds will forever remain between him, Father Joseph and God, because that’s what the seal of confession is all about.

This is sheer torture for Father Joseph. He is bound to protect a secret so vile that it makes him re-evaluate his faith and question his calling. But his moral dilemmas and internal demons aside, will he be able to act – to actually stop the killer? That could mean breaking the holy seal of confession.

The institution of confession is as old as the Catholic Church. Its principle is straightforward: you confess your sins to God (via your priest), you regret them with all your heart, you are given a penance and finally – the cherry on top – you receive an absolution. That means that the slate is wiped clean and you are free to go and sin again, or preferably show self-restraint and resist the temptation of sin.

In the sixteenth century, the Reformation rejected the idea of confession. Historically, confession has been a fantastic tool for the Church to gather intelligence about the shady dealings of kings and nobles, and to use that knowledge to gain influence and wealth. Knowing other people’s secrets can be very useful indeed when one is not afraid to exploit that knowledge for one’s own ends. The absolution of sins was also a very profitable proposition as it often came at a hefty price to the penitent. To prevent the misappropriation of the knowledge acquired through the confessional box, the clergy was bound by the seal of confession. Thus, no priest (if he wishes to remain ordained) can break that seal and tell a living soul what he hears in confession. Even if it is a preventable crime.   

I would like to share a short extract from Broken to illustrate Father Joseph’s torment.

“I am not claustrophobic and am well accustomed to the confined space the confession box has to offer. It has been my second home for thirty-odd years. Sometimes I refer to it as my holiday home because I normally dwell here for hours on end in anticipation of holidays. Christmas and Easter are my high seasons. That’s when the penitents come to unburden themselves. They whisper their transgressions into my ear – God’s ear theoretically, but let’s not split hairs. I grant them absolution so that they can go out into the world with their consciences clear. They will sin again and be back to recite their wrongdoings in the privacy of my wooden box. I will be here for them and we will go the whole hog all over again: confession, contrition, absolution and a few Hail Marys for their penance. I will mumble my chant of absolution in Latin, as you do when you are a catholic priest. I will sing to them the melodious incantation of Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. It’s an uplifting moment – magical. It’s like the beating of the drums in the night. The penitents’ sins release their souls from darkness, and, so cleansed, my penitents walk away, light-hearted and hopeful, promising to be good, and meaning every word of it.

Except for that one man – the Prophet.

He doesn’t mean any of it.

I can’t absolve him without true remorse on his part, and he has none. He is proud of what he has done and what he will continue to do. He comes to me to brag about it. He knows I won’t give him absolution, but he keeps coming back. It isn’t absolution he is after. It’s something else. I fear his purpose is to torture me: to taint me with his insanity and seduce me to the side of evil. He has made me into his accomplice – a silent partner in crime. That’s because I cannot betray him. He knows he is protected by the seal of confession. I will sooner gag on what I know than speak of it to any living soul. It is between the monster and me. God is in on it too, I suppose. He is listening through me, and then He does nothing. I’d think it shouldn’t be hard for God to strike the man dead on the spot. But no. God chooses to love the man and lets him perpetuate his evil. Does God love the man’s victims less than He loves him? It’s a blasphemous idea and I banish it from my thoughts. I hope God knows something I don’t, and I submit to His will. We let the man walk away unscathed.

‘I’m only a humble tool in God’s hands, Father, doing His will.’ The man’s voice is no more than a low whisper, a tapping and hissing of consonants and only an intimation of vowels between them. He is careful not to raise his voice and give me an idea of his pitch and tone. He has bleached his speech free of accent. I may know him, but I wouldn’t recognise his voice if we spoke outside the confessional. He has made sure of that. His breath is infused with mint. He always chews gum so that I can’t smell his breath. He wears gloves and a beanie. It comes down to the bridge of his nose. I can’t see his eyes. His beard veils his lips. I don’t tell him this, but he doesn’t really have to go to such lengths to conceal his identity. I don’t want to know it. I am bound to secrecy and so I don’t wish to discover who he is. My resolve would be tested beyond endurance if I did.

‘I’ll be back,’ he says like he is the second coming of Arnold Schwarzenegger, an avenger of the innocent. He thinks he is. He definitely fancies himself a holy man. That is why I call him the Prophet. ‘You can sleep in peace, Father. Happy Easter.’ He crosses himself, pulls himself up to his feet and leaves.”

Broken by Anna Legat

Broken was published by SpellBound Books on 15th April.

Anna Legat

Anna Legat is a Wiltshire-based author, best known for her DI Gillian Marsh murder mystery series. A globe-trotter and Jack-of-all-trades, Anna has been an attorney, legal adviser, a silver-service waitress, a school teacher and a librarian. She read law at the University of South Africa and Warsaw University, then gained teaching qualifications in New Zealand. She has lived in far-flung places all over the world where she delighted in people-watching and collecting precious life experiences for her stories. Anna writes, reads, lives and breathes books and can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction.

To find out more:

Contemporary crime reviews

During lockdown I had another go at reading Proust, but I’m still struggling. (The good bits are wonderful but the bad bits are like a parody of self-indulgent French intellectualism.) I’ve been given the graphic novel version of volume 1 (yes, it really exists and it’s rather wonderful) and I’m having a go at that. Meanwhile, what I’m actually reading is detective thrillers. Here are the latest (both courtesy of NetGalley)

Death comes to Bishops Well: Anna Legat

Anna Legat is already an established crime thriller writer, but my only experience of her in the past has been through her more ‘experimental’ novels, which have been interesting because of their rather edgy and sometimes nihilistic approach. I’ve seen her writing about adventures in Hell and the end of the world so I was intrigued to see what she would do in the deeply traditional ‘cosy crime’ genre.

Death comes to Bishops Well plays by all the rules. At first I was confused by having a whole heap of individuals thrown at me to sort out into potential victims, possible suspects or would-be detectives, but that more or less goes with the territory. (I enjoy Agatha Christie but I hate the obligatory dinner party at the start with ten guests who we are briefly introduced to and then have to keep track of as we try to work out which one did it.) Legat soon establishes the individual characters who are clearly drawn and interestingly three dimensional. It was the characterisation that kept me going through the initial pages while everyone was assembled together until the big party where one person ends up dead and the others are all suspects.

There’s an interesting narrative twist as chapters alternate between the point of view of a slightly fussy solicitor and his bohemian neighbour who livens up the story by seeing ghosts. The reader needn’t worry, though: the ghosts never speak or interfere with the solution of the mystery which is eventually resolved in traditional Agatha Christie style. They do add an additional layer of fun to a tale that is punctuated by regular stabs of amusement, often at the expense of twee villages like Bishops Well. (It sounds a lovely place to visit but if I had to live there I’d be desperate to be the victim in the next of what promises to be a long series.)

I’m not sure it entirely works as a crime mystery. I can’t say why without major spoilers, but I found the ending unsatisfactory. I’m not sure that Legat’s heart was entirely in finding out whodunnit. She’s much more interested in the people and the fun she can have with their situation – ghosts and all. If you go with the flow (easy enough – she writes well) you’ll have fun too.

A Slow Fire Burning: Paula Hawkins

I ‘read’ this as an audio book. I love crime thrillers on audio (how else would I get the housework done) and this definitely hit the spot.

I wasn’t sure at first. In fact I nearly gave up in the first few minutes as it started with one of those horrific ‘woman about to be raped/murdered’ prologues that linger a little too much on the misogynistic detail. I suspect Paula Hawkins may lose readers with this, which is a shame, because the book isn’t like that at all.

It’s a confusing, messy start, switching from the over-written prologue to a woman bleeding in her bathroom having been injured in some unspecified way. We quickly establish that she is a disturbed young person with unsympathetic parents and then we are away again to another woman and a detailed account of the trials of emptying the chemical toilet on her barge.

By the time we got to the murder I had almost decided not to listen to any more. I’m glad I stuck with it, though. It’s a very good (if deeply depressing) book.

It takes a while to get all the characters sorted out. What links the best-selling author and the miserable middle aged woman on the barge? And how are they linked to the alcoholic who, in turn, links us to the bloodied woman at the start of the book? And what on earth does the prologue have to do with any of it?

It is, as you may imagine, a twisted and tangled tale: twisted in both senses of the word. Almost all the characters are deeply flawed. All have some redeeming feature or, at least, some excuse for being simply awful people, but the truth is that, except for one utterly lovely person, all are very unpleasant – and one, of course, is a murderer.

To tell the truth, I didn’t really care whodunnit. I was carried along wondering how this wretched bunch of people were going to get their lives together or – more realistically – how exactly they were going to crash and burn. It’s not exactly an edifying spectacle but, like any car crash, their stories have an awful fascination.

In the end we do find out who did it. There are twists and turns along the way and the resolution is satisfying, but it’s not really crucial to the enjoyment of the book. It’s just a bloody good read – or, in my case, ‘listen’ – and Rosamund Pike’s narration is spot-on perfect.