Notable Thriller Debut: The Shepherd’s Calculus by C.S. Farrelly

Thomas Andes reviews the new debut novel by C.S. Farrelly titled “The Shepherd’s Calculus” in the upcoming fall issue of Mystery Tribune. 

As exemplified by Graham Greene in such novels as The Power and the Glory and The Comedians, the Catholic political thriller has the unique ability to ask pressing moral questions while probing matters of state. On the run after Catholicism has been outlawed in Mexico, Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory experiences a crisis, realizing that for all his observance of ritual, he has very little real faith. The scene in which he recognizes his kinship with his fellow prisoners in jail seems a twentieth century version of Lear’s epiphany on the heath. Politics catalyzes one man’s spiritual transformation. Of course, the Catholic Church is itself a political organization, one still dogged by the long shadow cast by child sex scandals, and as the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code suggests, we have no small appetite for intrigue about the Church’s inner workings.

In her debut novel The Shepherd’s Calculus, C.S. Farrelly shapes a fine political thriller out of these raw materials. At its heart lies a mystery: was Jesuit priest James Ingram the decent, almost saintly man he appeared to be in life, or was he hiding a sinister side, guilty of the unspeakable crimes the church has become associated with, or at least of covering them up? The novel revolves around Ingram’s friend and former student, journalist Peter Merrick, who is scarred and trying to deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome after witnessing a bombing on assignment in India. Asked by his alma mater to eulogize the priest, Merrick stumbles onto papers in Ingram’s personal effects that challenge everything he thought he knew about his mentor.

Thereafter, at least early in the novel, Merrick gets relatively little screen time. Rather, we meet Ingram’s colleague Owen Feeny, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the novel’s antagonist. A heroine, Ally Larkin emerges. An aide on a high profile presidential campaign, and a fish out of water as a practicing Catholic in young, hip, secular Washington DC, Larkin discovers Feeny’s plot to cover up decades of crimes that happened under his watch and prevent nearly a billion dollars in payouts to victims of sexual abuse by making a devil’s deal with her candidate. That discovery exacerbates her crisis of faith. Eventually she and Merrick work to thwart Feeny.

It makes for compulsively readable fun, at the same time asking serious questions about the nature of power. We empathize with hero and heroine, both of whom are charismatic and flawed. Both grow over the course of the book. Feeny is a compelling antagonist: a vile man, whose willingness to resort to any means necessary to protect the Church from scandal makes one’s skin crawl, he nevertheless seems shocked by the crimes, even as he covers them up. Of the first time he was confronted with a priest in his charge having committed a sex crime, Feeny recalls, “Never once did he sense anything was off with him. In fact, he had disregarded the charges as a modern-day witch hunt led by overbearing and hysterical mothers.” No doubt people in positions of institutional power have employed similar rationalizations to justify the unthinkable. One recalls former Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s disingenuous denials of Jerry Sandusky’s predatory behavior.

Farrelly does a fine job of [developing]… a commercial political thriller with well-developed characters and strong literary qualities

Crucially, though, Feeny is not a predator—and therefore not a monster—himself. Though in a year in which accused sexual predators seem to occupy every high office in the land, he seems equally terrible, if not worse: a coconspirator, and a character study of how a thirst for worldly power can cause one to become complicit in the unspeakable, to become monstrous. Eventually, the novel turns on this question, which is nearly identical to the dilemma Greene’s nameless whiskey priest faces in The Power and the Glory: how does one reconcile the Church’s worldly attainment of money and power with it its spiritual aims? “Maybe Owen was right,” Ingram thinks when he appears in a flashback at the end. “Maybe human beings were no better than wild beasts, as desperate, vicious, and self-serving as any animal backed into a corner.” The novel pits Feeny’s cynicism against Ingram’s not quite liberal humanism.

In Greene, one person experiences this conflict, while Farrelly embodies it in two characters. The peril of this approach is that they become types in an allegory. In moments Feeny tends too much toward the comic book villain, the scheming priest, pitted against Ingram’s wise old priest, who achieves perfection in death. The novel also suffers slightly from its insularity. Were the novel’s Catholic presidential candidate to win, he would be the second Catholic president in U.S. history. There has never been a Lutheran U.S. president. Yet the plot of the book hinges on a Lutheran presidential candidate’s complicity in covering up Catholic sex crimes. Add to that the fact that nearly every significant character in the book is Catholic, and the novel sometimes seems to be happening in a world apart.

But any novel creates its own reality. And while the novel might have benefitted from a non-Catholic foil such as Greene often used, Farrelly’s insights about the Church’s influence in politics seem no less valid, or chilling.

The novel’s title refers to the reckoning a person in a position of power must make: if one purports to be a shepherd, to offer guidance, at what point does such power corrupt the person who wields it? To put it another way, the Catholic Church offers spiritual guidance to millions—in the world of the novel, an undeniable good. Does that make the institution worth protecting in spite of the crimes it has helped perpetrate? Farrelly does a fine job of framing these questions in the form of a commercial political thriller with well-developed characters and strong literary qualities. Indeed, we might ask the same questions not just of the Church, but also of any institution. The number of men recently revealed to be predators and abusers who have been sheltered by institutional power in politics and entertainment suggests they are universal concerns.