Date Published: October 1986
Number of Pages: 302
Print Price: $9.91
eBook Price: $
Morris West, the Australian Catholic writer, is perhaps best known for his The Shoes of the Fisherman. Cassidy, published in 1986, is a later work.
West sets a promising tone at the beginning:
“Charles Parnell Cassidy – God rest his soul! – was the perfect specimen of an Irish politician. They’re a migratory tribe, so you find them everywhere: Boston, New York, Chile, Vatican City, Liverpool, Peru and Sydney, Australia. They’re hardy, longevitous, resistant to infection by disease or new ideas, little modified by regional influences.”
Having grown up in the Chicago of the elder Daley and Cardinal Cody, I have a strong respect for those Irish politicians. But Cassidy turns out to be significantly – and, to my mind, disappointingly – different from those I have known.
As the book starts, a dying Cassidy (premier of the Australian province of New South Wales) comes to visit his estranged daughter and son-in-law (Martin Gregory) in London. The tension between Cassidy and Martin is immediately apparent. Martin started out as a law clerk in Cassidy’s firm, but he refused to submit totally to Cassidy’s domineering personality.
He married Cassidy’s daughter Pat without her father’s permission, and the young couple moved to London to get away. Martin is now a successful finance lawyer, and he and Pat have two children.
Upon Cassidy’s sudden death, Martin learns that Cassidy has made him his executor. Martin is given a file of information with a letter from Cassidy laying out several options: Martin can sell the information to a mysterious person who is willing to pay five million dollars for it, he can turn it over to the allegedly corrupt minister of justice of New South Wales, or he can use it for his own benefit. Martin heads out to Australia to follow up on the information and decide what to do.
Cassidy has placed Martin – whom he always referred to cuttingly as “Martin the Righteous” – in a Faustian position. Allegedly in order to keep government and society in working order, Cassidy had taken over the reins of a network of criminal activities – from corrupt unions to blackmail. It is clear that Cassidy believed Martin – whom he once thought would be the son he never had – to be the only person who can take over these reins and maintain political power. But it also becomes increasingly clear that, with the advent of the drug trade, Cassidy was gradually losing control and the whole criminal network was a house of cards that might implode at any time.
This novel can be read at two levels. On the first it is simply a mystery – a fairly intelligent political thriller that keeps one turning the pages. On this level, it is a moderate success.
But it also seems that West wanted to move the book up a level – to the world-weary philosophical Christian novel that Graham Greene was so good at, and that West himself did so much better in The Ambassador. The Faustian theme – and the Christian equivalent (“what profits it a man to gain the whole world...”) is woven throughout implicitly and explicitly.
There are also many Graham Greene-like ironies. Cassidy is said by one of his colleagues to have perhaps not believed in God but to have believed in the Church. One of Martin and Pat’s acts of rebellion against him (and causes for the estrangement) is that they refuse to get married in the Church.
Martin’s first meeting in London with Cassidy takes place in a Jesuit church, and Martin returns there toward the end of the book; in true Graham Greene style, he considers seeking absolution but decides against it. Thus Martin the Righteous rejects the Church which Cassidy the venal has embraced.
There are passages that build on the theme of politics and Church:
“[The Cardinal] launched into a eulogy so stuffed with platitudes that Cassidy must have been writhing in his coffin.... But... under all the windy rhetoric there was a genuine emotion, an affirmation of essential brotherhood between the cleric and the politician. They had been friends a long time, had hammered out hard bargains together. They were both Irish by origin, both absolutists by nature, both caught in the same dilemma that whatever the rules or the dogmas, you had to bend them to make the social contract work. If you didn’t, you got blood in the streets.”
But, in the end, none of this is really developed well. Church – and even the faith – remain peripheral. The potentially interesting compromises of politics (well portrayed, for instance, in Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah) just doesn’t come off here. Unlike the Daleys, whose personal honesty was never in question, Cassidy is far too venal a character (personally profiting from crime) to be interesting. In fact, none of the characters – Martin Gregory and Pat included – is very interesting or likeable, and only one – the Australian Federal Commissioner of Police – is notably honest and ethical.
The result is a rather gray, depressing atmosphere unleavened by serious philosophical insights. A shame. West was a good writer, and this was a lost opportunity.
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Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.1 x 0.8 inches
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