Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"False Tongues"

Kate Charles, who was described by the Oxford Times as "a most English writer", is in fact an expatriate American, though an unashamedly Anglophilic one. She has a special interest and expertise in clerical mysteries, and lectures frequently on crime novels with church backgrounds. After more than twenty years in Bedford, Kate and her husband now live in Ludlow with their Border Terrier, Rosie.

Charles applied the Page 69 Test to her latest novel, False Tongues, and reported the following:
From page 69:
‘Oh, hello.’ Jane smiled in spite of herself. She dropped her handbag and her shopping bag on the table and pulled out a chair.

It used to be that Simon was the one who rang her, just for a chat. But now that he had a girlfriend – a serious one, who seemed to consume his every waking moment – those chatty calls were few and far between. Now it was far more likely to be Charlie who made those calls. On her part, Jane was always reluctant to ring her sons, in case they were in lectures or tutorials, or busy with important course work.

‘I’m bored,’ Charlie said. ‘Up to my eyes with this blasted essay. And there’s no one else around. So I thought I’d ring you for a bit of a gossip.’

Well, Jane thought philosophically, it was better to be a last resort, a relief from boredom, than the alternative of no call at all. And she always enjoyed Charlie’s gossip: unlike the more earnest Simon, he had a tendency to be amusingly ironic. He was observant, as well – a useful characteristic for the priesthood. That was Charlie’s chosen career, though of course it would be up to the Church whether to accept him or not. From a young age he’d stated his intention to follow his father into the Church, and was reading theology at Oxford with the aim of going straight on to theological college.

‘I don’t have any gossip,’ Jane admitted. Charlie wouldn’t be interested in the churchwarden running out of mouthwash, the only thing she could recall from her recent encounter. She emptied her shopping bag onto the table and lined up the items she’d bought as cover: a box of paracetamol tablets, a packet of sausages, a cucumber. Just in case Brian asked about her urgent errands.

‘Well, I do.’ Her son paused, then went on. ‘I was in the Bodders on Saturday afternoon. After a few hours I had to go out and get some air. I stopped at a little caf to grab a cup of tea, and who do you think I saw?’

The Archbishop of Canterbury? Lady Gaga? ‘Surprise me,’ Jane said obediently.
Page 69 of False Tongues contains a telephone conversation which is in no way essential to the plot of the novel. The principals in this scene, vicar’s wife Jane and her son Charlie, are continuing series characters but this is Charlie’s only appearance in False Tongues, and Jane is no more than a minor player in a storyline which involves the murder of a teenage boy.

Thematically, though, this scene could not be more representative of the book. A bored Charlie has rung his mother for the purpose of exchanging gossip. False Tongues is largely about the damage that can be inflicted on people by careless gossip – gossip which is not necessarily meant to be malicious, but which can nonetheless destroy lives and blight happiness.

‘No smoke without fire’ – how many times are those words thoughtlessly spoken? Jane herself is a victim, when two church workers speculate about her vicar husband’s relationship with his female curate Callie. And in Cambridge, where Callie has gone to a reunion at her theological college, seemingly harmless gossip comes close to derailing the future happiness of the Principal.

But the meaning of the novel’s title goes beyond gossip to something even more lethal: deliberate lies, and words intended to wound. ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me’. Anyone who has ever been verbally bullied will know how spurious that old chestnut is. Today, verbal bullying no longer relies on face-to-face contact. Social media and texting provide a convenient cover for those who prefer to hide behind anonymity to practice cruelty. Cyber-bullying is real, and it has directly brought about the death of vulnerable victims – teenagers who have killed themselves rather than face another hateful message, for instance. Words can kill.

So, in False Tongues, when young Sebastian Frost is stabbed to death, the police want to know why. What they find out makes his parents question how well they knew their gifted, popular son. Was he what he seemed to be, or … not?
Visit Kate Charles's website.

--Marshal Zeringue