You’d think a guy with a Ph.D. in Celtic Languages and Literature, author of a biography of St. Patrick, would do pretty well, writing a novel set in ancient Ireland a few years after Patrick’s death. But Dr. Philip Freeman is here to prove you wrong.
St. Brigid’s Bones is a mystery novel set in an ancient Ireland in which everyone has 21st century attitudes. It seems Ireland in 500 A.D. was a Blue State–who knew? Any moment, I expected the characters to go to Wal-Mart and text each other about it. He shows us the stern old abbess loosening up to have afternoon tea with her good friend, the local Druid wise-woman. All that was missing was the Starbuck’s.
The mystery genre has a rich history of clerical detectives. Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton, Father Dowling by Ralph McInerny (the novels–not the TV show), Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters–there’s meat to these books. They make you think.
The heroine-detective of Brigid’s Bones is that worn-out, done-to-death cliche, the Street-Smart Nun–or she would be, if they had any streets in ancient Ireland. She is young, liberated, has sex with single guys, and probably votes Democrat.
At one point in the story, she confronts the corrupt, evil abbot with evidence of his guilt. He gets the drop on her with a knife; and then, instead of just killing her and winning the reader’s gratitude, he makes the Classical Movie Villain Mistake and blabs all about his various crimes and how he did them, what he’s gonna do next, yatta-yatta… and he’s so busy yakking, the Street-Smart Nun grabs the knife and beats the stuffing out of him. And do you know what she says, after she has him stretched out on the floor? She says, “I’ll come back and finish this, if you ever again mess with the sisters of St. Brigid.”
With dialogue like that, who needs satire?
Finally, the mystery itself, that has Sister Whatsername traipsing all over Ireland trying to solve it, turns out to be…well, not much of a mystery at all. In fact, it’s a shaggy dog story. It’s the kind of thing that gets a stand-up comedian booed off the stage.
Do yourself a favor, and don’t read St. Brigid’s Bones.