“Anne Emery has already won one Arthur Ellis Award for her first Monty Collins mystery, and this one should get her on the short list for another. Cecilian Vespers is slick, smart, and populated with lively characters. ” — Globe and Mail
A German theologian found dead on the altar and an international cast of suspects present an intriguing challenge for Father Brennan Burke and lawyer Monty Collins.
Lawyer and bluesman Monty Collins is used to defending murderers, and occasionally investigating murders himself. But he can’t round up the usual suspects this time. The blood-drenched body of Reinhold Schellenberg, a world-renowned German theologian, has been found on the altar of an old church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during Vespers on Saint Cecilia’s day. The man has nearly been decapitated. The controversial priest, once a top insider in the Vatican, was known to provoke strong feelings in Catholics of all ideological stripes. Now those feelings have overflowed with horrifying results.
His friend Father Brennan Burke has just opened a choir school for priests, monks, nuns, and other Catholics devoted to the glorious music of the Church’s past. So Monty has before him an international cast of suspects, including a flamboyant Sicilian priest who left the Vatican under a cloud of suspicion; an eccentric English monk who has penned scathing attacks on Schellenberg’s actions during the Second Vatican Council; a disgruntled American ex-priest who can’t quite let go; a churchgoer with a history of violence; a Vatican enforcer; and, most perplexing of all, a police officer from the former East Berlin. The case lifts the lid on fascinating episodes of Church history, thwarted ambitions, old grudges, and long-simmering disputes.
Monty and Brennan’s investigation takes them on a road trip to Italy: to the corridors of power and the glittering museums of the Vatican, the elegant apartments of an operatic diva, and the cloistered grounds of medieval monasteries.
Monty immerses himself in a world of ancient chants, votive candles, stained glass, incense, and the music of the spheres. The more he learns, the more questions he has. In the end, he finds himself turning to the saints for answers.
About the Collins-Burke Mysteries
This multi-award-winning series is centred around two main characters who have been described as endearingly flawed: Monty Collins, a criminal defence lawyer who has seen and heard it all, and Father Brennan Burke, a worldly, hard-drinking Irish-born priest. The priest and the lawyer solve mysteries together, but sometimes find themselves at cross-purposes, with secrets they cannot share: secrets of the confessional, and matters covered by solicitor-client confidentiality. The books are notable for their wit and humour, and their depiction of the darker side of human nature ? characteristics that are sometimes combined in the same person, be it a lawyer, a witness on the stand, or an Irish ballad singer who doubles as a guerrilla fighter in the Troubles in war-torn Belfast. In addition to their memorable characters, the books have been credited with a strong sense of place and culture, meticulous research, crisp and authentic dialogue, and intriguing plots. The novels are set in Nova Scotia, Ireland, England, Italy, New York, and Germany. The series begins with Sign of the Cross (2006) and continues to the most recent installment, Postmark Berlin (2020).
Father Burke appeared ready to burst into song, or at least into chant, as he tacked Saint Thomas’s words to a bulletin board at the entrance to the building. He said, simply: “Let our work begin. ”
“Our work” was the inaugural session of the new Schola Cantorum Sancta Bernadetta, under the directorship of the Reverend Father Brennan Xavier Burke, BA (Fordham), STL (Pontifical Gregorian), STD (Angelicum). The schola was a kind of choir school for grown–ups, who would be learning or relearning the traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church. Gregorian chant and Renaissance choral music had been largely shunted aside over the past thirty years. For the church, the cataclysmic event of the 1960s was the Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II. It was a meeting of bishops and theologians from around the world, called together by Pope John XXIII for the purpose of opening the windows of the church to the modern world. When you open a window, fresh air may blow in, but something else may get blown out. In the opinion of Father Burke, the great musical heritage of the church went out the window after Vatican II. In setting up his schola cantorum, he intended to do his part to recover what had been lost.
My law firm, Stratton Sommers, had done the legal work for the schola, but my involvement went far beyond that. My family and I— my estranged wife Maura, son Tommy Douglas, and daughter Normie — had been privy to Father Burke’s anticipation, his anxiety, and his all–night planning sessions as he worked towards the realization of his dream. It was a lot of work but we were happy to assist in any way we could. We knew that if he succeeded in establishing the school, he would be making a permanent home in Halifax. Burke had spent much of his childhood in Ireland, most of his adult life in New York, and the past few years here in Nova Scotia. By this point we felt wedded to him, for better or for worse, and I know the lights would dim if he walked out of our lives. Not surprisingly, then, I was on hand for the introductory session.
“Now, Father, be mindful of the possibility that others in the group may have, em, views that differ from your own. ” The gentle warning came from Burke’s pastor, Monsignor Michael O’Flaherty, a slight, white–haired priest who spoke with a lilting Irish brogue. “I know this is your show, but a bit of advice from your elders may not go amiss. Just remember to be patient, forbearing, courteous, and open to the variety of —”
“Michael,” Burke interrupted, “when have I ever failed to be patient and forbearing?”
The older priest—who really was patient and forbearing, and who answered to “Michael” or “Mike” as cheerfully as to “Monsignor” — sent me a knowing glance, which I returned. He knew as well as I did that when the meek inherited the earth, Father Brennan Burke would not be among those on the podium taking a salute.
“Besides,” Burke was saying, in a clipped Irish voice that could never be described as lilting, “these people know what they’ve signed up for. The fact they are here says to me that they have certain views on the Mass and on music that accord with my own. ”
“Oh, I wouldn’t make that assumption now, Brennan. Not necessarily. Just keep caution in mind, my son. ” Michael turned to me. “Any advice for him, Monty, before he goes up there?”
“Somehow I suspect my words would be wasted, Michael,” I answered.
We had reached the gymnasium of St. Bernadette’s choir school, where the schola had its headquarters and the students were already gathered. Monsignor O’Flaherty and I took seats in the back. Burke went to the front of the gym and took his place at the lectern. Tall, with black eyes and black hair threaded with silver, Burke was a commanding figure in his clerical suit and Roman collar. He faced his inaugural class of just under sixty students. They were priests, nuns, friars, and a smattering of laymen and women from all over North America, Europe, and Japan. The term was originally intended to begin in September and wind up before Christmas. But, owing to the meddling of the priests’ housekeeper, Mrs. Kelly, the notices and registration forms were several weeks late going out. The housekeeper, who had never quite approved of the worldly Father Burke and was not skilful enough to mask her disapproval, wrongly believed the papers had to be seen and endorsed by the bishop. By the time Burke discovered the error and set her straight in a blast that nearly blistered the paint off the walls, he had missed a number of publication deadlines. The first session had to be delayed, throwing the whole year’s schedule off.
But the big day had arrived. It was Monday, November 18, 1991. Burke began his opening address: “Welcome to the first session of the schola cantorum. I am Father Burke, and I look forward to meeting each of you when we begin our work this afternoon. Your presence here suggests to me that you are looking for something deeper, something richer, something more, shall we say, mature than the liturgy and music you may be encountering in your home parish. I have heard the term ‘do–it–yourself Mass’ and that pretty well —”
“The phrase ‘do–it–yourself ’ raises a red flag to me, Father! It suggests that you disparage anything but the old, conservative liturgy that held sway before the Second Vatican Council. ” The speaker was a heavy–set woman of middle age, with a large wooden cross hanging from a strip of leather around her neck.
“Well, you’re right in part. There is much that has crept into the church today that I disparage. But people have the wrong idea when they blame Vatican II. None of that was envisioned by the Council—”
“Oh, I think you’re being too kind there, Father, too kind altogether. ” An elderly priest struggled to his feet with the aid of a cane; he faced Burke, then turned to address the crowd. “In fact we can put the blame squarely on the Second Vatican Council for destroying the very essence of Catholic worship; some would say the very essence of Catholicism itself. ”
The first speaker was back before Burke could respond. “So some liturgical practices are not as good as others? Is that what you’re saying, Father Burke? Are you admitting you’re an elitist?”
Many a schoolteacher would have envied Father Burke at that moment; he may have been under siege, but he had the attention of every student in the room.
“We are members of the Roman Catholic Church,” Burke countered. “That is not an institution founded on relativism, moral or otherwise. We need look no further than Saint Thomas Aquinas, who speaks of degrees of perfection. Gradibus in rebus, gradations in things. Thomas says some things are better, truer, finer than others. And that is certainly true of music. When you compare Mozart with, well, some of the tripe —”
“I was right,” the woman asserted. “An elitist. Well, that approach leaves out great segments of our community, I’m afraid, Father. Not everyone can appreciate —”
“Who’s being an elitist now?” Burke snapped. I was surprised he had held his temper this long. “I refuse to talk down to my congregation, as if the people are simpletons who ‘don’t get’ the great music. I refuse to insult their intelligence with childish, jaunty, sentimental little tunes —”
“So we’re going to be stuck with all the old music? I thought we were going to dialogue and workshop together to create some music of our own. There’s a group of us here who have been sharing ideas for some new compositions for the Mass. ”
Burke’s customary deadpan expression gave way to one of horror. How had someone who proposed composition by committee found her way into his schola, a bastion of traditional music?
He eventually got back on track and continued his address. The vast majority of the group were attentive and silent, but he was going to have his hands full with the disgruntled minorities in the student body. If things proved dull in the criminal courts, where I spent most of my days, I’d make a point of dropping in to the schola to observe the fireworks!