The Minister and the Murderer: A Book of Aftermaths

Stuart Kelly

(Granta, £20)

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Review by Brian Morton

To tell this story as it should be told will require a degree of self-scrutiny I had not anticipated.” To review this book, ditto. Getting the second of these out of the way first: at the very moment in 1984 that the General Assembly of Scotland was discussing “The Candidature of Mr James Robert Nelson” – candidature for the ministry, that is – as well as another matter that has profound relevance to Stuart Kelly’s remarkable narrative, I was receiving the final instruction that would lead me, at 30, out of the Church of Scotland and into the Catholic communion.

What I had not anticipated, even while embracing a more numinous spirituality, was how much I would miss the intellectual sinew and textual rigour of the Kirk. Still do.

What made the candidature of Nelson out of the ordinary is that he had served a prison sentence for murder. As another commentator noted, the Nelson case was the ecclesiastical equivalent of a “man bites dog” story arguing that “while ‘dog collar murderer’ or equally ‘murderer dons dog collar’ are

both sensational stories, there is a difference in the moral quality between the two”.

There is also a step-jump in the moral complexity of Nelson’s act when one remembers, or is reminded, that it was his mother that he slew, in circumstances and with motives that are still unclear.

Kelly hunts in vain for instances of matricide in the Bible and finds only complex and ambiguous examples in art and popular culture, perhaps most obviously Psycho, which raises the spectre of a sexual dimension that is never quite resolved and remains troubling, particularly to me, since Mary the mother was unambiguously my path to Catholicism.

The role of Nelson’s father – who seems a more obvious and perhaps more justified object of rage – is likewise unresolved.

And Nelson himself, whose image Kelly scrupulously avoided for some time lest he make a snap judgment based on appearance, remains shadowy, awkward, prone to inappropriate humour. The Minister and the Murderer. At first glance it sounds like one of those starkly oppositional titles, like The Madman and the Nun, that posits a dramatic encounter in which roles and stereotypes are fated to be reversed.

In this case, though, the two are already one, leading Kelly into a complex and very learned discussion of conversion, repentance and forgiveness, three of the chewiest theological problems out there. That all three are in some way closely connected to imprisonment and retribution isn’t accidental and points to something important about Kelly’s book, read as a text.

He very often, noticeably often, makes semi-apologetic reference to having spent “too long/many hours/much time...” on some activity, whether binge-watching schlockumentaries about clerical killers or bulk-reading Agatha Christie on a diet of Lemsip.

There’s a point to these chatty remarks, for this is a book about time, doing time, serving time, letting time heal or not heal, and Kelly very deliberately and brilliantly draws out his narrative so that its sheer durational impact becomes part of the story; it also occupies time.

He is learned – though not above some odd mistakes, such as Oswald “Mosely” and George VI on the throne in 1929 – and his biblical exegesis is detailed and often provocative; but he is also a good journalist, who knows how to work a microfiche reader as well as an Old Testament concordance, so he doesn’t miss the shiveringly delicious detail that on the very day the Kirk debated the ordination of a matricide, it also spent some considerable time debating “the Motherhood of God”.

Kelly dislikes essentialist arguments about Scottish culture, but it’s fair to say that The Minister and the Murderer could only have been written by a Scot. And only about the Scots Church.

Its sometimes laborious earnestness, its doubledness and very palpable sense of spiritual and existential threat – best represented by a breathless moment when Kelly believes himself to be pursued by Something – are hardwired. Its sheer verbal energy and playful parsing, likewise.

At one point, Kelly declares a time-out to discuss whether the distinction between theist and atheist covers all bases: “who are the untheists, the abtheists, the retheists, the distheists, the antheists? ... If I cannot be faithful or faithless, can I be faithwracked? Or faithing? Or faithish? Or faithean? Or faithwards? Or faithry? Or faithick? Or faithilytic?”

And he realises that at the very heart of the story is that things to which the Scots are drawn even more than to the double positive of “Aye, right” is an almost Jesuitical commitment to the double negative.

It takes him 209 fascinating pages to get to the scores. “The Church of Scotland excelled itself in 1984 ...The Kirk was not saying [to Nelson], You are definitively a fit and proper person to be the shepherd to a flock.

It was saying, We can’t say that you’re not.” In the same way they couldn’t say that he was not forgiven, or that he had not experienced a conversion (another word that could be re-prefixed at length). So they voted: 622-425. In favour of ordination.

Most older readers will have known the outcome already, but just as The Day of the Jackal remains exciting (there are hidden parallels that make the comparison worthwhile) even when you know that Charles de Gaulle wasn’t assassinated, The Minister and the Murderer sustains its suspense to the very end.

Like his previous subject Walter Scott, Stuart Kelly is a master storyteller,

but perhaps even more important, as long as the Kirk retains minds like his

in its ranks, it can be reassured that falling numbers don’t tell the only

story.