“Digressive and anecdotal” – The Minister and The Murderer by Stuart Kelly

Billed as true crime meets theological analysis and literary criticism, The Minister and The Murderer is exactly the sort of oddball essayistic non-fiction you’d expect from Granta, and Kelly’s fascination with the James Nelson case and his penchant for an learned digression ensures that this book is just as idiosyncratic and wide-ranging as its billing suggest. We weren’t entirely convinced, though…

The basic premise is the story of James Nelson, a Scottish man who, aged twenty-five, was sent to prison for self-confessed matricide. He embraced religion while he was inside, and later on, after his release, he applied to become a minister in the Scottish Church. Kelly’s book traces the debates within (and without) the Church surrounding Nelson’s suitability, and the subsequent progression of his career (spoiler: they let him in); from there, it expands outwards to explore the history and politics of the Church, and the Biblical intricacies of faith and forgiveness, guilt and revenge, and murder and motherhood, alongside a potted history of Kelly’s own relationship with belief and what he describes at one point as ‘eddies’ of literary and cultural history that chime, in one way or another, with all the aforementioned. Each chapter is prefaced with a Biblical reference and quotation; some of the sections are presented as Sermons. Like an actual sermon, the text here is rarely direct: it uses the concrete details of its central case study as springboards to launch extended considerations of a host of tangential concerns. It’s dense but accessible; deeply serious without being po-faced.

Is it good or bad, though? As Kelly suggests (via Nelson’s story), it’s not that simple: one can after all, be both. It depends, perhaps, on what you’re after. If you’re reading for the plot – for what happened to Nelson – then you might well find it frustrating: as far as investigative biographical study goes, there’s not much happening here. Kelly’s prone to bouts of speculation that read, to us, like the padding-out of a thin sketch: after the initial will-they-won’t-they of the Assembly’s examination of his case, we’re left with light guesswork about his two marriages and the feud with his father. If you’re looking for true crime, you’ll find this book, once you’re past the initial exposition, rather light on scandal and dénouement. If you accept, though, that Nelson’s verging on a red herring, and that Kelly’s really after an excuse to ponder at length a variety of Biblical and cultural problems in ethics, morality and faith, then you’ll get on better. As he says himself, Nelson is ‘a keyhole through which I can see issues and ideas that have troubled and intrigued me for decades’. While The Minister and the Murderer isn’t an academic text, Kelly doesn’t wear his research lightly: his Biblical analyses are both exhaustive and entertaining, as are his extensive summaries of the make-up of the Scottish Church and its various schisms, and he’s included close readings of texts as diverse as JM Barrie’s The Little Minister (1891), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), Norman Mailor’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) and Euripides’ Orestes. No doubt about it: you’ll learn a lot. Kelly’s passion for his subject(s), then, impressed us no end, but the book itself left us a little cold: it’s digressive and anecdotal where we were hoping for something more taut. The spine of it all – Nelson’s history (family and criminal) and his application to the Church – was hard to follow: the chronology wasn’t always clear, because it’s all scattered in amongst the other discussions, and Kelly’s tendency to editorialize and throw in rhetorical questions invoked a theatricality and tension that wasn’t borne out by the facts as they (eventually) emerged. Likewise, Kelly’s fondness for analogy and coincidence might have been curbed: his look at matricide in relation to the Bible is eminently apt to the situation at hand, but his digression to explain the case, of, say, Antony Baekeland, does not, as he admits, bear much comparison to Nelson’s, and ‘cannot enlighten us much’: the book would, we’d venture, be better off without it.

Kelly’s meandering path through cultural history is, then, potentially divisive as far as his readership goes: it’s more or less frustrating depending on what kind of book you’re hoping to encounter. Halfway through, he gives Adam Curtis a shout-out, which seems ironic, because Curtis is a master at winching in the apparently disconnected strands of his own far-reaching narratives; Kelly, by contrast, seems to gesture towards a grand narrative that never quite emerges. And yet, as he points out, the sermon as a religious text is about exploration, not about definitive answers, and this book is pretty explicit about its allegiances on that score: it’s no legal thriller.

Any Cop?: You know your uncle who gets a kick out of hassling the vicar about arcane doctrine but doesn’t bother with church if there’s an Agatha Christie adaptation on TV? Wrap this up, toss it his way, and you’ll get your reward in heaven. (It didn’t do it for us, but some people will truly love it.)


Valerie O’Riordan


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