TITLE: Brothers Keepers
AUTHOR: Donald E. Westlake
304 pages, Hard Case Crime, ISBN 9781785657153 (paperback)
DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover) “Bless Me Father, For I Have Rented.” What will a group of monks do when their two-century-old monastery in New York City is threatened with demolition to make room for a new high-rise? Anything they have to. “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is only the first of the Commandments to be broken as the saintly face off against the unscrupulous over that most sacred of relics, a Park Avenue address.
MY RATING: four out of five stars (check this on Goodreads to be sure)
While the cover art by Paul Mann makes the novel look like a Bondian spy adventure, Brothers Keepers is yet another fun caper novel from the great Donald E. Westlake (and seriously, I know I say this every time I review a Hard Case Crime Westlake re-release, but … how did I make it so long without reading any Westlake at all? Every title of his HCC has released, I’ve loved). It’s almost a Shakespearean comedy: there’s manipulation, mistaken identities, sexual innuendo and actual sex (on the beach and near it), cunning wordplay, and (spoiler alert) a happy ending, of course. It’s light, frothy, funny – but also a bit philosophical.
The monks in question are of the Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum – dedicated to the contemplation of Travel, but not to Traveling itself, unless absolutely necessary. Yes. An order founded by an immigrant who was visited by the patron saints of Travel wherein the members actually dislike the very idea of Travel and do their best to stay safely walled off from the world. So of course, some of them end up having to leave the monastery for more than just the time it takes to go buy the Sunday paper at a nearby newsstand, and hilarity ensues. But in among the humorous stuff, Westlake allows us to think about the nature of Travel, of how it’s changed over the past few centuries as technology has made it easier for us to work farther from home and to get from point A to point B, and of how the increased ability to Travel has changed the way people relate and react to each other. That he accomplishes this without browbeating the reader is a testament to his ability as a storyteller.
Our narrator is Brother Benedict, who came to the monastery on the rebound from a failed relationship. If that’s not a trope, I don’t know what is – but Westlake tweaks it in subtle ways, giving Benedict depth and a compelling character voice. He’s a simple man and the life, and lack of temptation, suits him. Of course, temptation gets thrown in his lap, in the form of the daughter of the landlord selling the property. For me, Eileen Flattery was the weak point in the novel. She never quite rises above being a spoiled, disaffected rich girl, just as the rest of her family and close circle of friends never rise about being selfish (at worst) or self-absorbed (at best). Benedict’s interest in her catches her attention, but it’s more the novelty of getting a monk to renege on his vows, and how her parents will react, than love of Benedict himself that motivates her.
It turns out that while the monastery itself can’t be sold, the land it was built on certainly can be, and the transfer of ownership is virtually complete. There’s a clause in the lease that would give the monks options to fight, but the original lease can’t be found, even though it should rightly be in the monastery office. The shenanigans involved in attempting to find the lease and other primary documents that would support court action are probably the funniest in the novel. Dusty attics, illuminated manuscripts made from mundane documents, art projects left behind by previous Abbots of the monastery … all are props the author uses to shine a light on the personalities, and previous life experiences, of Benedict’s fellow monks. The monks aren’t treated as one-note jokes or as a uniform species; all of their backstories are explored in small moments and bits of dialogue that give them real dimension. There’s a former banker, a former lawyer, a former conman, a former political activist, and more. Each of their knowledge bases comes to play, but it’s Brother Benedict who ends up having to Travel further than any to convince Eileen to help them.
It’s no surprise that our narrator turns out to be the least worldly man among his peers, and this sets up an interesting counterpoint: the monk most willing to Travel on the monastery’s behalf is the one with the least experience in navigating the world outside the monastery. Benedict’s travails and temptations make up the middle of the book and his wide-eyed innocence makes them funnier than they’d be if told in any voice but his own.
I don’t want to give away too much about how that previously-mentioned happy ending comes about, because Westlake slyly tweaks the typical “third act reversal and reveal” model. Suffice to say, the last third of the book is as fun and tongue-in-cheek as the rest of the book.
If you’re looking for a fun romp, this is definitely a book worth picking up.