“The Beast of Bethulia Park”
Gracewing Publishing, 432 pages
A few years ago, while musing on the Catholic imagination and the deep need for Catholic literary fiction that goes beyond pious themes with predictable outcomes, I encouraged creative Catholics to expose the faith to an increasingly jaded world by branching out into comics, or cartoons, song lyrics, games and puzzles. I made an especial appeal to writers, noting that every Catholic novel needn’t be the equal of Walker Percy’s or Graham Greene’s work — that indeed, regard for such literary luminaries may be intimidating some Catholic writers who believe they have a story worth telling, but fear comparisons to those greats. “It needn’t be world class, you know, to move a soul, somewhere,” I had written, concluding, “As Chesterton himself wrote, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.’ Let’s do our badly best.”
By my lights, any resurgence in marketable Catholic creativity should certainly be permitted to embrace more populist fare, including the sort of summer beach reads meant to be consumed lightly — enjoyably picked up and put down as leisure permits.
To that end Catholic journalist Simon P. Caldwell’s debut novel “The Beast of Bethulia Park” more than fits the bill for a holiday or beachtime read, featuring a young protagonist priest, a mysterious string of hospital deaths, a journalist juggling a very modern sort of relationship, and a couple of nefarious characters who may or may not be connected with a historical bit of 17th-century anti-papist terrorism.
The link to the past that bookends this modern-day tale is quite intriguing, but Catholic mystery devotees will likely get caught up in the all-too-timely moral quagmire of euthanasia upon which this story gallops along. We’re not talking about assisted-suicide, which is a fraught-enough issue, but characters who take real joy in deciding what a human life ought to be, and who gets to live it.
When young Father Clavin Baines of Liverpool becomes a new hospital chaplain, he is asked by a family to look into the unexpected death of a loved one. From there he gets sucked into a situation that seems like it may well be beyond him and his fairly new priesthood — one that not only exposes him to physical danger but brings substantial risk to his mental and spiritual health and to his vocation. Temptation beckons (but remains only that) in the form of a beautiful young nurse trying to step out of her own entanglement with darkness.
There is, in fact, quite a lot of darkness in “The Beast of Bethulia Park,” and at times it feels a little like the author has attempted to do too much, particularly when an older priest — a Jesuit, no less — bounces into the story to consider the problem of spiritual oppression, advises Baines to read Adolphe Tanquerey, Jérôme Ribet and other heavy-duty theological mystics and then more or less bounces out, leaving the reader a bit breathless.
But there is also a bit of fun and light, here — what story about a Liverpudlian priest could be complete without references to the Beatles, Blackpool and a day at the horse races, after all? And if the denouement feels a little over-the-top in a few places, well, in summer reads such things are permitted.
The need for Catholic fiction that manages to entertain in a more populist vein while managing to still love the church makes “The Beast of Bethulia Park” a welcome diversion for Catholics looking for a paperback and a hammock in the shade.
Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @theanchoress.