Cover of the book The Beast of Bethulia Park, by S.P. Caldwell, published by Gracewing Publishing. OSV News photo/courtesy Gracewing Publishing

Take flight with Simon Caldwell’s Catholic novel

  • May 25, 2023

A few years ago, on the Word on Fire website, author Andrew Petiprin mused, “Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness if there were new Catholic novels to grab off the newsstand at the airport?”

In The Beast of Bethulia Park, journalist Simon Caldwell delivers such a novel. A fast-paced modern mystery-play replete with stumbling heroes and bloodthirsty villains, one could easily recommend it to a friend seeking an engrossing read for a long-haul flight or a convalescence.

Set in present-day England, the novel is a wild romp through fistfights, love interests and pursuit of a pair of murderous doctors, and a careful study of human agents navigating the present-day moral landscape.

Canadian Catholic novelist Randy Boyagoda spoke of wanting to write his novels in the “here and now.” Caldwell manages that, placing his characters firmly in the here and now Britain of gamers, pornography, Tesco grocery stores and the NHS.

At the centre are two men and two women. Fr. Calvin Baines is a young, earnest and naïve priest who becomes embroiled in a quest, together with nurse Emerald Essien and journalist Jenny Bradshaigh to unmask a prominent and powerful doctor, Dr. Reinhard Klein. Klein, at one with the spirit of the Nazi doctors, is both talented and intelligent, but believes he is working for the common good when he kills old people in his care at Bethulia Park Hospital. In a post-coital conversation with Dr. Octavia Tarleton, his partner in adultery and murder, Klein says what he is doing is merciful. Mercy, Klein says, “needs, like so much else, to be redefined into something you can actually believe in. It needs to be purified for our century.”

Caldwell is not shy to put straight-up Catholic doctrine into the mouth of Fr. Baines and thereby the novel. But Fr. Baines is no flat and pious poster boy.  He becomes sexually obsessed with the mysterious and beautiful Emerald and his fidelity to his priestly vocation hangs in the balance. Caldwell wisely resists the temptation to tidily package up and dispense with that tension. It persists and evolves, and the reader is allowed to witness Fr. Baines and Emerald step forward and back and then forward again.

There are no static characters in The Beast of Bethulia Park. Each is on a pilgrimage. Caldwell weaves into their stories the historical pilgrimages of Catholic Britain. Put on administrative leave after trying to force his way into the hospital records, Fr. Baines visits the Tyburn Tree at London’s Marble Arch where “more than a hundred Catholic men and women died as martyrs between 1535 and 1681.” Later, he and Emerald travel to Holywell in North Wales, the site of healing waters that “for more than a thousand years had been associated with the horrific murder and miraculous recovery of a beautiful Welsh maiden who became a nun.” That nun, St. Winefride, gives her name to Fr. Baines’ parish church.

Beyond a portrayal of contemporary Britain shot through with literary and historical references, Caldwell manages to depict the moral world in which Catholics and non-Catholics find themselves. It is habitat St. John Paul II famously identified in Evangelium Vitae as a “culture of death” built on a “veritable structure of sin.”

St. John Paul II wrote that in modern life, “the conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of life.”

The characters of the novel fumble their way in the dark, trying to discern the way forward, questioning themselves. Things are off-kilter, but they aren’t quite sure why.

Emerald finds Fr. Baines in the confessional and asks him, “So which is worse? Adultery, drug abuse or keeping quiet when you see others kill? You’d think being an accessory to murder is the easiest thing to avoid. But not in my job it ain’t. Does it make me a coward if I just carry on regardless?”

Caldwell began his career on local newspapers and then spent over 10 years at the Daily Mail foreign desk. He brings a lively pacing to his first novel that speaks to those years of producing copy. At times his handling of the characters and the transitions between scenes feels a bit clumsy, but that is small criticism. We can only hope that there will soon be another Fr. Baines book to grab off the shelf when next passing through the airport.

(Farrow is The Register’s Montreal correspondent.)

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