Mrs. Wentworth came to see Father Bredder with a very disturbing story. She was terrified of being murdered – burned to death – by her husband. She told him of the time her mattress was soaked in gasoline, and other mysterious incidents. She’s even heard her husband’s voice telling her that she must be burned! But how could this be possible? Mrs. Wentworth’s husband, a dentist, has been dead for two months, having died in a traffic accident!
Father Bredder doesn’t brush off Mrs. Wentworth’s story, though – he has a nasty feeling of having spotted Satan’s hand at work in this situation, and he enlists the help of Lieutenant Louis Minardi of the Los Angeles police to investigate Mrs. Wentworth’s story. When the case turns deadly, Father Bredder must investigate who made A Pact with Satan, selling their soul to the Evil One by committing murder…
A Pact with Satan is the second Father Bredder mystery by Leonard Holton, penname of Leonard Wibberley (author of The Mouse That Roared). I first came across the author in Otto Penzler’s The Great Detectives, a book which collected a few essays by various authors about their detectives. Holton’s essay on Father Bredder particularly fascinated me, in which he explained why Father Bredder is not just another Father Brown clone, and how he attempted to create mysteries which Father Bredder would solve with “spiritual fingerprints”. (It helped that Holton had words of high praise for Agatha Christie.)
Father Bredder’s motives for investigating crimes are simple: he wants to save the soul of the criminal, for he or she has not just broken the laws of men, but the law of God. Holton’s essay did spoil the first book of the series, The Saint Maker, but that still proved to be a delightful read. Well, since originally reading and reviewing The Saint Maker in 2013, I was delighted to discover that Holton’s Father Bredder mysteries are available – at a very reasonable price – in the Kindle store. So I was eager to jump into A Pact with Satan, the second book in the series, to see if I would enjoy it.
Unfortunately, A Pact with Satan is a relatively big disappointment as a mystery. As soon as the mystery was outlined, I knew the solution, and was shocked only by how obvious the answer was. I saw precisely what Holton was trying to do. In the very best mysteries, not a single fact is concealed from the reader. How, then is the author to spring a surprise? One effective way is to get the reader to construct a faulty framework to interpret those facts. At the last moment, the author changes the framework, and voila, there is the solution, so surprising, yet so obvious in retrospect! Thus, to make a ridiculous example, the crucial fact that the dead man would enjoy ice cream in his study is not crucial due to the ice cream, but because the freezer in which the ice cream had to be kept was missing. Unfortunately, the framework Holton wants you to make is so rickety and clearly faulty that as a seasoned mystery reader I didn’t buy into it for a moment, but instantly saw the correct framework.
But on top of this major flaw is the fact that the motive is both absurd and sprung out of nowhere. It was the only aspect of the mystery I couldn’t understand, and when I read the explanation I shook my head in disappointment. Indeed, the most fascinating mystery in A Pact with Satan was the mystery of what Lieutenant Minardi would buy his daughter Barbara for her thirteenth birthday: he enlisted Father Bredder’s help for gift suggestions, and their attempts to come up with something were one of the book’s enjoyable features… but even this got a very disappointing resolution, because it technically never got resolved! Barbara does indeed get a present, but it doesn’t technically come from her father. So as far as I’m concerned, this is a cold case.
Does that mean that I hated this book? No, it doesn’t. Father Bredder and Leonard Holton built up a lot of good will with me in my previous exposure to their stuff, and this proved to be the difference maker. I already liked this fictional universe and the characters within, and it was nice to be back. I particularly like what Holton tries to do in constructing a mystery where Father Bredder’s identity as a Catholic priest gives him unique insight into the spiritual condition of the people around him, including the criminal. It is different from Chesterton’s Father Brown, though superficially it may sound identical. I also love Father Bredder, a man who tries his best to be a good priest but who has also experienced the horrors of war. However, as a seminarian studying to become a Catholic priest one day (God willing), this could be bias on my part – I’m not sure a non-Catholic would get the same level of enjoyment out of Father Bredder.