Sarah Sheridan’s debut crime novel is a fast-moving psychological thriller about murder and corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. What’s different here is that it’s not the sexual abuse of children we’re talking about, but rather the cover-ups that go on when priests break their vows of celibacy and the struggles faced by the children they sire.
The action begins in the Diocese of Westminster, in London, where Sister Veronica lives as a nun. It’s a comfortable life – she enjoys communing with God, the friendship of a kind priest, working in the kitchen of the adjoining youth hostel and the odd custard cream biscuit. However, beneath that tranquil surface, Sister Veronica is frustrated. She’s not at all comfortable with the scandals that regularly erupt from the Church in the UK, Ireland and beyond, and wonders if there isn’t something rotten deep within the organisation.
As a nun, she has nobody she can voice her concerns to – and she’s unlikely to open up about them to Melissa, the journalist who is living at the convent to find out what it’s really like to be a sister, for an article she’s working on. Sister Veronica has another secret too, which will raise a smile among crime fiction lovers. On the quiet, she writes cosy crime stories.
That really doesn’t set her up for what’s about to happen, though. When she goes across to the youth hostel kitchen to bake some cakes for the residents, she finds the housekeeper, Jamie, dead on the ground. Someone has bashed his head in.
Raising the alarm, Sister Veronica is surprised when Father Mathers and Cardinal Moore refuse to call the police. Instead, they tell her that the crime will be dealt with under God’s law. It’s the same excuse that has been used for decades to cover up child sex abuse within the church. But it appears this has nothing to do with lusty priests, so why won’t they call the cops? At first, Sister Veronica is too upset to wonder who killed Jamie and why. However, when she’s instructed to clear out his room she decides to keep the young man’s diary.
In it, she discovers that Jamie actually had something to tell her. Stuck for a way out, she goes to Melissa for help, and then certain things become a lot clearer. Melissa isn’t just researching a story, as such. She’s the daughter of an errant priest and her birth was kept quiet by the church. An organisation supporting children of clergy who have been rejected by their fathers, is helping her find out more and pointed her towards Jamie. He too grew up not knowing his real father, and had become a manic depressive. Maybe that’s what he wanted to talk to Sister Veronica about.
Sister Veronica and Melissa start an investigation of their own, but this is soon detected by the clergy in the diocese who try and shut it down by sending Veronica away. As a result, she goes on the run, heading first to Paris and ultimately to Rome to get to the bottom of things. This makes her and Melissa targets for a particular group of priests, who have other plots and plans that they want to keep secret.
It’s a perilous ride for Sister Veronica, who is more used to sitting in the convent garden than being tied to a chair in a dank catacomb beneath the Vatican. Both she and Melissa discover their inner resolve along the way, and it’s a journey filled with betrayal. At the same time, they must learn to trust certain people, or they’ll never get out of this mess. There is convincing depth to both the main characters.
Overall, the tone is more that of a cosy crime novel, the type Sister Veronica might write, than a dark psychological thriller. It moves so quickly that there’s little time to build atmosphere, which the novel would benefit from as some of the key action takes place in age-old churches and the ancient nooks and crannies of the Eternal City. The details of some key plot points are glossed over, and sometimes difficult situations are resolved too conveniently.
However, Sarah Sheridan writes passionately and exuberantly about subjects she knows well. She has been working on a degree about institutional abuse and the marginalisation of the children of clergy – driving themes in Sister Veronica’s story. The Convent is an entertaining read that would be ideal for the commute if more of us were going to work. Instead, it can take you from your armchair across Europe for an hour or two while you wait out the lockdown.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars