The Conduct of Saints

( 1 )

Overview

The war in Europe is over, and Rome is under the jurisdiction of the Allied Control Commission. Brendan Doherty, an American Vatican prelate and lawyer, is involved in two crusades. Although he feels guilty for having done too little to save the city's Jews from Auschwitz, he means to avert the execution of a Nazi collaborator. He also intends to prove the hypocrisy of Alessandro Serenelli, a man who has spent his life, in prison and out, promoting the beatification of a child martyr. Doherty—memory tormented, ...

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Overview

The war in Europe is over, and Rome is under the jurisdiction of the Allied Control Commission. Brendan Doherty, an American Vatican prelate and lawyer, is involved in two crusades. Although he feels guilty for having done too little to save the city's Jews from Auschwitz, he means to avert the execution of a Nazi collaborator. He also intends to prove the hypocrisy of Alessandro Serenelli, a man who has spent his life, in prison and out, promoting the beatification of a child martyr. Doherty—memory tormented, hard drinking, a moral street fighter for what he is sure is right—must come to a reckoning with himself and with the unshakable saint-maker Serenelli.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
There is no easy way into this National Book Award nominated author's latest novel (for A Peep Into the 20th Century), a historical narrative set in the initial year of Allied-occupied Rome. Dense language, political heft, and teasing secrets hold the reader as one follows alcoholic American priest Brendan Doherty in pursuit of his two goals: to discover Alessandro Serenelli’s role in the martyrdom of Maria Goretti—whom he raped and murdered—and to save the life of the condemned Nazi collaborator Pietro Koch (who tortured and murdered thousands). As Davis grapples with the morality of capital punishment, he also explores issues of faith and forgiveness, and more modern topics like sexuality and the ways suppressed emotions creates martyrs of their own. The vivid environment of post-war Rome seems to have saints around every turn, a stark contrast to the detailed accounts of the Vatican's complicity in the holocaust. Despite prose that can be frustratingly oblique, and too many scenes of dialogue-as-exposition set in cafes or bars, the culmination of the trial, execution, and the resulting aftermath leaves the reader with a haunting sense of the past informing our present that only the best historical fiction hopes to achieve. (May)
Library Journal
Davis’s 12th novel is an unsettling story that questions both faith and redemption. The central character is American Brendan Doherty, a Vatican prelate and lawyer who enjoys drinking as much as advocating for his two causes. A staunch death penalty opponent, he attempts to prevent the execution of Nazi collaborator Pedro Koch. At the same time, Doherty is convinced that murderer Alessandro Serenelli is lying about the miraculous spiritual transformation he claimed to have experienced after killing young Maria Goretti. Forty years earlier, Serenelli attacked Goretti, who is soon to be canonized as a child saint. Church politics, sexual trysts, and plenty of alcohol weave these two stories together through post?World War II Rome. Davis skillfully blends fact and fiction by incorporating historical figures such as Koch, Serenelli, and Goretti into the heart of his plot.

Verdict Though the title and main character suggest a heavily religious story, it will be readers of historical fiction, particularly those interested in World War II, who will find much here to enjoy.—Shannon Marie Robinson, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
Historical fiction, set in Rome in 1945 during the fraught post-war period. With many characters based on real figures, including Pope Pius XII, this book has elements of a thriller. At the center of Davis' (A Peep Into the 20th Century, 1971, etc.) novel is Brendan Doherty, hard-drinking Irish prelate and canon lawyer from Philadelphia. Long a resident of Rome, long in the employ of the Vatican, he has two tasks. Implacably opposed to capital punishment, he attempts to save the confessed killer Pietro Koch from the death penalty. Suspicious and skeptical, he interrogates the saintly murderer Alessandro Serenelli, saved by a vision of his victim Maria "Marietta" Goretti. The investigation is a formality, as Goretti is to be canonized (she was, in 1950). Doherty is knotted with contradiction; alcohol and lies are the lubricants necessary to loosen his grasp of the facts and their hold on him. We meet Tommy Costa, trusty assistant to a U.S. Army general. Tommy and his general are good-hearted looters, injecting needed cash and other forms of currency into the strapped economy and strapless black market. Doherty meets Tommy in the company of impoverished royals. Rich in art and prestige but cash poor, they are not flattered; as the book proceeds, the title looks ironic. Deeply committed to conventions of novelistic verisimilitude, the book reads as a study of sin, the blackest guilt of Koch, the conflicted Doherty, the spotless soul of the saint Maria. A strong example of an uncommon type of historical fiction, appealing to readers who like to see guilt punished or forgiven.
Huffington Post - Don Gold
"Davis' range is breathtaking. His technique is subtle, but never obscure. His intentions are always revealed at a purposeful pace. A reader will search in vain for a stray cliché, a familiar voice, or a lifted reference. The Conduct of Saints captures the time and the place; it is a profoundly atmospheric novel. More important, it presents an unforgettable cast of characters. Once again, Davis' work commands our attention."
New York Journal of Books - Diane Brandly
"The Conduct of Saints is a compelling, complex, character driven story. The writer draws us into the halls of the Vatican, into the spartan and isolated or secretly lavish quarters of its troubled inhabitants, into the inner circle of people who can buy their way in and out of critical situations...Each chapter should be read and then considered, and perhaps read a second time, to truly appreciate the depth of Christopher Davis's insights."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781579623159
  • Publisher: Permanent Press, The
  • Publication date: 5/28/2013
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,482,581
  • Product dimensions: 8.60 (w) x 5.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Davis has taught creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and other schools. He is presently Senior Lecturer in the Arts emeritus at Bryn Mawr College. He has published eleven novels, three books of nonfiction, a book for children, numerous articles and short stories in national and foreign publications, and produced a play based on his own National Book Award nominated novel A Peep Into the 20th Century. Davis has held a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant. He is the recipient of a National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Career Award.
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  • Posted March 21, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Redemption is hard to achieve and sometimes even harder to under

    Redemption is hard to achieve and sometimes even harder to understand, as Christopher Davis makes clear in this novel of post-world-war-II Italy and Vatican promise. Can a murderer be redeemed by seeing a vision of his victim forgiving him? Is there hope for a man who’s caused the deaths of too many to remember their faces? Can faith redeem, and can it be rushed into existence before a court condemns? And finally, will a drunken priest redeem himself by saving a prisoner’s life, or by condemning another man’s soul—do lives or souls weight heavier on the scales of salvation?

    Italy struggles under Allied occupation at the end of World War II. At least a few of those who collaborated with Hitler now face justice, while others struggle to force their own will through the labyrinth of political, religious and sexual corruption left behind. The Catholic church needs a new saint for a new age, and perhaps an old sinner will be the one to conduct her on her way.

    Each in his own different prison, each challenged to find escape, and each lavish in invention, the characters of this novel conduct their own strange dance around each other’s sins. Sexual, political, military and personal corruption vie for control. Those who seek redemption in redeeming others might find themselves doubly betrayed. The sad American priest, the scheming Italian, conniving lovers and wives, betrayed Jewish survivors and naïve supplicants, all prove to be pawns, all are lost, and none are as gently found as the forgiven murderer of one. But in the end, only one is being conducted to sainthood. And if saints can save us, they’ll do so one at a time.

    Wonderfully evocative, thought-provoking, oddly redemptive despite its corruption and depression, the Conduct of Saints is a truly intriguing drama with a pleasing mix of real-life and imagined characters on the stage of history.



    Disclosure: I received a free bound galley of this novel from the publisher with a request for my honest review.

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