Full disclosure: Dr. Jamie Turndorf has been my therapist for nearly a decade. Her deep understanding of the effect of childhood emotional wounds on adult behavior is one of the strengths of this novel, lending empathy and subtlety to the psychological struggles inherent in following a priestly calling… or deciding not to. A foundational theme addressed in this book may present a serious challenge for dutiful Catholics: the story is a loud statement of opposition to the rule of celibacy for priests.
The fact that this tale’s lone hero investigator is a Catholic priest puts the novel on the fringes of the popular priest-as-detective tradition that may have begun a century ago with G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. But The Calling’s Father Bernardo is no amateur sleuth looking for crimes to solve; he’s a reluctant detective forced by circumstance to try his best to save the life of an unjustly-accused fellow priest, his childhood friend. He succeeds because that is the genre convention: the mystery must be solved. The mystery cannot be allowed to remain a mystery because questions without answers are just too uncomfortable! Or so the conventional wisdom insists.
In this case, another agenda is added: the mystery must be solved so that a real-life Church coverup can be exposed. Jamie Turndorf’s late husband and co-author of this novel was once a prominent Jesuit, so he provides authentic insider knowledge. According to the marketing blurb, the novel is “Based on a never-before-revealed Vatican cover-up….” While the promise of Vatican-level intrigue is never fulfilled, we do get a priest’s convincing view of rampant sexual hypocrisy in a northern Italy diocese in the 1960s - 70s.
For me, the best “mystery novels” are those where the plot’s mystery (the unsolved crime) is really just a pointer toward deeper mysteries, existential or even cosmic, the unsolvable kind -- questions without answers. So that’s what I look for. In The Calling, the most important investigation, in my opinion, is not about the murder at all. It is Father Bernardo’s search for his elusive Self -- that congruent core that is his truest inner being, free of the controls of Mother, Duty, or Church. In those passages, the book enters my preferred realm of “metaphysical detective fiction,” in which the world is one of questions, not answers; interpretations, not solutions; and the sleuth is seeking not "Whodunit" but "Who am I?"
(For more on this subject see my earlier post: Nondual Auster, Metaphysical Detective.)