A review of The Confessions of Owen Keane by Terence Faherty

Reviewed by Paul Kane

The Confessions of Owen Keane
By Terence Faherty
Crippen & Landru, April 2005

This welcome volume collects together the complete short fiction (altogether six substantial short stories and a novella) featuring Faherty’s series character Owen Keane, a “failed seminarian turned amateur sleuth”. Terence Faherty himself introduces the collection and it closes with a full bibliography of his work: novels, novellas and short stories all.

It is an interesting introduction, not least because of what Faherty has to say about his craft. For example, he makes the (surely correct) claim that “amateur sleuth is the hardest of the mystery subgenres to write realistically in series form” (page 9); and this is unlikely to change, taking into account the emphasis on forensic science, and various law-related professions, in current crime fiction. Still, the premise behind the character of Owen Keane – “he has the odd idea … that he can find clues to the spiritual questions that haunt him by investigating crimes” (page 9 again) – is a deeply intriguing one. The reader is inclined to suspend disbelief simply because it promises so much.

The stories are indeed rather special and they develop the crime genre in a fascinating direction. Owen Keane fulfils many of the roles of a priest – he offers pastoral care to his “parishioners” and feels an imperative to save or rescue them. More often than not, it is he who decides when and how to offer help, responding to a need that is not apparent to others. And the mystery is an outward sign of this need. Crucially, a detective must question and doubt – and perhaps this is the chief reason why Keane never got to wear a dog collar. He had another calling.

These are genuine mysteries; a case is solved using deduction; but they have very real human qualities too. So in “Main Line Lazarus” a man voluntarily accepts the fall for a crime he didn’t commit because he hankers for a kind of rebirth. And in “On Pilgrimage”, one of two hitherto unpublished stories, a sponsored walk to raise money for cancer research has its sinister aspect. The walkers tell each other stories, as in Chaucer, and these allow Keane to suss out a murder that has been planned. Finally, “A Sunday in Ordinary Time” is set in the week following 9/11 and, beyond the specific mystery and its capture of the ambience of those days, it is about “the power of small, insignificant acts of goodness to counteract a crushing evil” (p.141). Like Absent Friends by S.J. Rozan, this story is proof that genre fiction can address momentous events in significant ways.

The many allusions to Christian, and specifically Catholic, notions (such as confession, penance, epiphany, sin, etc.) will remind some of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Faherty’s stories can bear this comparison; they will not be found wanting. As in Chesterton, justice here rarely involves the police; and implicit in all is the notion that sin, guilt and repentance are more fundamental than crime and punishment.

The book is marred by a few typos of the sort that a spellchecker wouldn’t pick up on – e.g. pack (138) when pact is correct, loose (146) for lose, bother (150) for brother – but other than this the production cannot be faulted. Faherty’s smooth, polished prose style is very congenial indeed; and as a storyteller he is a master of the surprising twist and the perfectly-disguised change of perspective. The Confessions of Owen Keane, the tales of one adept at finding mysteries in the quotidian, is the perfect antidote to CSI and all those other forensic science laden novels and dramas.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com