In the great tradition of mystery novelists such as Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton comes Tim Doran and his work Toward the Gleam. Imaginative and original, Doran’s debut novel is based on a real 20th-century Catholic literary figure and his most famous work. It captures the reader and sends him on a cat-and-mouse chase that spans a continent and nearly 20 years.
Doran doesn’t entirely say who this famous writer is, so neither will I — and spoil the fun. But we do get a first name: John.
John is a WWI army lieutenant and unassuming university professor at Oxford. But he stumbles upon something that changes his life: a manuscript predating recorded history, but apparently more sophisticated than anything that could have been produced by modern civilization.
John’s intellectual curiosity gets the better of him, and translating the manuscript consumes his life. Lest someone learn of his valuable possession, John adopts a pseudonym — John Hill — while he travels across Europe in search of clues to the artifact’s origin and meaning. Despite his best efforts, he finds himself the target of someone who desires to possess the artifact — and for much more sinister reasons than intellectual curiosity.
His enemy, as it turns out, has rejected all notions of metaphysical philosophy about truth and goodness and wants to spread dangerous notions of relativism and its nasty cousin, nihilism. Beyond his classroom lectures, John finds himself reckoning with the notions of evil and death, freedom and will, transformation and triumph, as he encounters it in his own life. He comments to his wife: “The use of freedom — will and action — determines whether outcomes are helpful or harmful. When we use freedom poorly, harmful outcomes occur, for others and for ourselves. That isn’t a bad definition of evil.”
Like your favorite mystery novel, Toward the Gleam is thrilling, clever and chock full of intriguing and colorful characters. One of the most charming places we find Doran’s characters is at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, where John meets his friends. Anyone who is a fan of the Inklings, those wonderful British writers whose genius brought us Mere Christianity, The Hobbit and many others, will thoroughly enjoy these scenes.
At times, Toward the Gleam seems to double as both a mystery novel and a critical essay of various popular modern philosophies. Someone may even be of the mind that they are having a “talking to,” as the tone can sometimes become quite didactic. All the same, the story is so clever and entertaining that I don’t mind one bit.
Tim Doran gives us a great read that is at once delightful and meaningful, serious and engaging — a must-read for mystery-novel junkies.
And bonus points if you can guess who the real-life John is before finishing the book.
Register correspondent Joy Wambeke writes from Marshall, Minnesota.
TOWARD THE GLEAM
By Tim Doran
467 pages, $24.95
To order: Ignatius.com