Final Act by Michael Spicer (Severn House, £6.95), WHEN a Conservative member of Parliament produces a novel with a political theme set in the fairly close future (2005 AD), it seems likely that we shall hear the axe grinding. In Final Act, Michael Spicer's first novel. we certainly do. It is a blatant warning. not so much against socialism, the USSR or other traditional Tory bogeys, but against apathy and pragmatism.
The whole world is the arena; a world divided into two camps, the Russian and the American, with the apparently stabilised fuel supply maintaining the delicate balance. Britain. the off-shore island. is ostensibly independent of both Russian-dominated Europe and the American bloc, but geographically it seems affiliated to the Soviet Union while behind the scenes the Russian domination and control is almost total. • With an ironic grasp of political wheeling and dealing. Michael Spicer sees the United Kingdom under a right-wing government, describing the process towards this condition with sinister undertones — 'as violence, in particular between the races, had spilled into the streets, the Russians had warmed to the idea of supporting a party whose leading members knew the meaning of discipline and order .. . the reformed Conservative party , . had been allowed to win'.
Into this intriguing, if alarming, journey to the future, Michael Spicer weaves his plot. And it is literally a plot. With more than a touch of the 1984s, he devises a thriller in wich a sane and well organised remnant of independently minded patriots take on, not only the dominant Russians, but the half baked and apathetic Americans too. It would be unfair to reveal any more of the action since this book is in the nature of a cliff hanger.
The leading characters are not stereotyped and their personal relationships are well-defined, perhaps more intimately than one might have expected in the politico military field. The author clearly has an empathetic and observant flair which hopefully will be allowed to develop much in later novels.
This one has a sense of purpose and a story-line calling for a balance between technology and psychology which is well maintained. So is the suspense.
Part of the fascination of the book lies in the way Mr Spicer foresees the solutions or resolutions of today's trends and problems: we find that trade unionism has become a heresy. the papacy has been abolished, New York is a quaint old fashioned holiday resort samples of thought provoking 'prophecies' to be found in this novel.
ANOTHER crime problem solved by the amiable Catholic priest, Father Koestler, who last year endeared himself to detective story fans in Death Wears a Red Hat. He is in some ways a morality play figure 'Sweet Reason' perhaps — a wellbalanced and articulate priest with good looks, athletic prowess, tolerance, humour, social knowhow and a strong sense of duty.
He moves among lesser mortals, touching their lives with sanity. and like the deus ex machina, sorting out their
difficulties. His Detroit parish, St Anselm's keeps him busy, especially when it is invaded by a young deacon, Les, whose ministry is strictly alcoholic and whose homilies include exhortations to the faithful that they must 'experience an existential metanoia and become a transcendental faith community'! Koestler has given up his extra parochial work as editor of the archdiocesan newspaper. the Detroit Catholic, but keeps in touch with journalists and the police.
Les fixes a wedding day for the daughter of a devout Italian couple. Her fiance has been validly, but not sacramentally, married and the dissolution petition will not be considered by Rome in time for the arranged date, Fr Koestler is left to unravel the confusion and his former class-mate, Mgr Thompson, now head of the tribunal dealing with marriage problems, seems the obvious person to help.
However, Mgr Thompson is not exactly a dispenser of sweetness and light — he is snobbish, self indulgent, corrupt, lustful, rigid and malicious. One can only hope that such an evil character is also intended as a symbol and has no basis in reality! He is. of course, the perfect victim for a murder, no fear of the reader identifying with such a creature. and, as the story unfolds, we learn of at least six people whose lives are threatened by this man and his power over their marriage prospects.
The novel could well be read instead of a manual on the Catholic teaching on marriage, a complex discipline.
William Kienzle is an ex-priest and gives a clear, if not wholly sympathetic, expose of the regulations applicable to each of the six cases.
The rivalries of the reporters on the two Detroit newspapers are dealt with equally expertly as the disappearance of Mgr Thompson makes the frontpages. He has so many enemies that it is assumed to be a case of murder. His diary (an unlikely document perhaps) reveals him as a salacious and revengeful Machiavelli whose death would be universally welcome. This diary, and the personal involvement of Joe Cox, journalist on the Detroit Free Press, provides a wealth of lively material for newspaper readers as the story of the missing Mgr hits the headlines.
One by one the six would-be murderers of this unspeakably nasty priest have planned and executed the crime — only, of course. in their minds — hence the book's title. The mystery is which of these plans was actually put into operation.
Mr Kienzle skilfully uses one side of the last telephone conversation of Mgr Thompson and teases the reader with his several versions of the unheard side of the dialogue. Each of the 'murderer's plots is so ingenious that one feels Mr Kienzle may regret his prodigal use of this material. We do not regret it however. It makes for a closeknit. always vivid and fascinating whodunnit with a happy ending. Good is suitably triumphant over evil in this modern morality, a nice combination of excitement and education.
The writing has the vitality of the American idiom without the now usual obscenities; the dialogue is keen and the pace lively. There is a refreshing objectivity in the presentation of' the Catholic standpoint on marriage issues which gives a special interest to Hera/a/readers.