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John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

His Majesty's Sacred Service

Susan Howatch weaves a tangled spiritual web for her Anglican clerics.

Some years ago, friends of ours introduced us to the British spy stories of Len Deighton. When they returned recently from their sabbatical in England, they offered us a new novelist with equal enthusiasm. "She's a University of London graduate in law," they gushed, "formerly a best-selling author of mysteries and sagas who converted to Christianity. Since then she has written a string of best-selling novels with openly Christian themes."

With visions of Inklings dancing in my head, I could hardly wait to read her. "What does she write about?" I asked.

"Anglican clergymen!" they replied with broad smiles.

At least since Chaucer's "The Parson's Tale," Christian writers have found fascinating material in that most unlikely of places, the lives of English clergy. In our century, G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries and Charles Williams's supernatural thrillers have found wide audiences. Now in our time, Susan Howatch has produced a popular series of novels set in the semifictional town of Starbridge (doubling for Salisbury) that explores the lives of several Church of England clergy and their families over the middle half of this century.

Glittering Images (1987) began this series, and Absolute Truths (1994) concluded it. Her new book, The Wonder Worker, takes up the tale of a generation who have roots in Starbridge but whose location and era are different: London of the 1980s.

The Starbridge series has sold very well, and it is likely that The Wonder Worker will carry on this success. Nicholas Darrow, the striking figure at the heart of the new story (and of number five, Mystical Paths, in the old series), is a remarkable priest. (All of Howatch's protagonists are remarkable: Jonathan Darrow, Nicholas's father, is a monk and spiritual director with psychic abilities—detailed in the second Starbridge novel, Glamorous Powers; Neville Aysgarth is a politically savvy archdeacon whose ambition is fixed on the Ultimate Prizes of novel three; and Dr. Charles Ashworth is ...

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