02/13/2013 11:31 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Review: The Conduct of Saints

The Conduct of Saints
By Christopher Davis
The Permanent Press, 2013


Designating an author as "a writers' writer" makes some gifted writers wince. Frequently, it means the writer's bank account is in free fall; his books do not appear on best-seller lists, some of his collected works are out of print. So it's a dubious honor. But behind it is the wish to recognize artistry and that comforts writers' writers who battle against despair.

Christopher Davis is one of those writers. The Conduct of Saints is his twelfth novel (he's also written three non-fiction books, a play and a children's book). His range is breathtaking. He's written novels set in the Middle Ages, during the holocaust, in a rural New York town and about the competition by electric companies to conduct the first electrocution in the United States. He's never a pedant; the novels rooted in history illuminate their time through human behavior. His technique is subtle, but never obscure. His intentions are always revealed at a purposeful pace. A reader will search in vain for a stray cliché, a familiar voice, a lifted reference.

The Conduct of Saints is set in Rome in 1945. The Nazis have been driven out by the Allied forces. A few remain, in shabby civilian clothing, hoping to avoid detection via an escape route both risky and vague. The children of Rome struggle to survive, as Davis notes: "at the outdoor cafes, restaurants, and in other public places, many of them barefoot, begging for money and bread, the boys offering themselves or their sisters for sale."

The Roman Jews are gone, eradicated. Collaborators are captured. In the Vatican, Pope Pius XII and his bishops compare conflicting objectives. A great city reels, suffers, arises. Into that setting, Davis has placed his characters, some real, some invented. His research unveils Maria Goretti, age 12, murdered decades earlier, eventually elevated to sainthood. Alessandro Serenelli, her murderer, imprisoned, released, reaching for his own redemption. Those two are real. The Contessa Alda Calfani and her husband Renato, remnants of the liberal royalty, try to preserve their dignity despite their decayed elegance and withered income. Tommy Costa, an American army lieutenant, an opportunist, acquires masterpieces of art and ships them home. Pietro Koch (another real figure), a fascist police officer widely known to have murdered Jews, is jailed awaiting trial. (The film director Lucho Visconti will testify on his behalf.) The Ferri family, educated Jews, hope to convert to Catholicism to save their lives.

All of these characters, and more, occupy Davis' mind and the mind of Brendan Doherty.

At the pivotal center of events, Doherty is a 51-year-old American priest-lawyer on Vatican duty. His task is to interview Serenelli about his claim for redemption for the Goretti slaying. Should the Vatican support that claim? There is more to Doherty's days; he is weary, a wounded moralist opposed to killing who has been surrounded by killing. He trudges through his days, dealing with the needy, with the Roman-Catholic hierarchy, hindered by a flawed moral compass, by memories of his love--never brought to fruition-- for a lost college friend.

Doherty mingles with the living, mourns the dead, drinks too much, smokes too much, prays. But his prayers "no longer had the means to stir him." He moves around Rome, on foot, on his bike, interacting, trying to organize support to avoid execution for the fascist Koch; even Koch, he feels, should be spared. He has dialogues, with clergy, with friends/allies, with enemies. He engages in private battle with sexual urges. Frustration is his oppressive companion. He is a good man under severe pressure, not a hero.

Finally, in a bar at a Rome hotel, chatting with two RAF officers, he is tempted to act, to achieve release. And he acts.

The Conduct of Saints captures the time and the place; it is a profoundly atmospheric novel. More important, it presents an unforgettable cast of characters. Once again, Davis' work commands our attention.