About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Vicar of Christ by Walter F. Murphy

(29. – 959.) The Vicar of Christ by Walter F. Murphy – I read this sprawling saga of the life of Declan Walsh a couple of decades ago. I enjoyed it at that time. I enjoyed the re-read more. Having reached my mid-60’s I appreciated the depths of the book better the second time.

Declan Walsh is as memorable character as I have encountered in fiction. Many a blurb has described a character as larger than life. None exceed Walsh. As a young man he is a war hero. In middle age he is the Chief Justice of the United States. As a senior he is chosen pope. It is an impossible life but Murphy makes it real.

What I understood better the second reading was the fullness of Murphy’s portrait of Walsh. In each of Walsh’s incarnations Murphy probes deeply into Walsh’s personality, how he deals with people and how he intersects with history.

The narrative is unusual in that it is told from the perspectives of men who served under Walsh. He was their leader not their peer.

In the Marines it is Master Gunnery Sergeant Giuseppe Michelangelo Guicciardini Jr.

Gunny is a profane lifer in the Marine Corps. Having served through multiple wars he is a keen observer of officers. He knows their leadership in combat is critical for the lives of the men under their command. Gunny neither fears death nor is courting death by seeking glory.

Colonel Walsh commands an infantry battalion in Korea confronting a Chinese army seeking territorial gains before peace negotiations take place.

In the midst of battle Walsh makes the hard decisions needed. He strives to minimize the losses but recognizes there will be many killed and wounded as they defend a hill against Chinese attacks.

The story enters into heroic myth when, because of Walsh’s skillful leadership, the survivors of his battered battalion slip through the Chinese army to reach American lines

When Walsh makes radio contact with his division he utters Hollywood worthy lines:

We have buried our dead and are carrying our wounded.

Gunny says:

But it was all about leadership – the way he planned and thought, and cared, or seemed to care, anyway, and taught and drove. He was good people, a little rough sometimes, maybe a little too sudden, but good people. Christ, he had smarts. If he was on the other side in a war, I’d hang up my jock or blow my brains out. And he was as stubborn a mammy-jammer as ever put on a tin hat.

On the Supreme Court it is associate justice C. Bradley Walker III who describes the time Walsh spent as Chief Justice of the United States. In his opening remarks he states:

You wanted to talk about Walsh – a fascinating creature, absolutely fascinating, my dear fellow. He had a great deal of atmosphere about him, but his was not truly a first-rate presence – close to it, but he missed, just missed. Great native intelligence, to be sure, and a dead keen wit. A man of fantastic drive, absolutely fantastic – and not devoid of vision, either. But for reasons I shall try to develop, there was a dimension missing, a lack of true understanding of the limited mission of our Court.

Walker is a pretentious American patrician who is a wily observer, sometime manipulator, of the Court.

Murphy creates a full complement of Supreme Court justices. Beyond Walsh and Walker there are seven credible characters as justices.

The fictional cases for the Court created by Murphy delve into the continuing issues of America. 

An early case involves unsuccessful white student applicants to Boalt Hall, the law school at Berkeley in Calfornia.

The oral argument covers the range of probing questions now common in appeals being argued before the American Supreme Court. Few lawyers are able to do better than hold their own against the queries of the justices.

What struck me is that Murphy is willing to have the argument go on for multiple pages. As in real life arguments before courts the process is not over in a couple of sound bites.

Subsequently the debate within the Court at conferences of the judges to discuss how the appeal will be decided is also given a generous exploration.

In this case Murphy recognizes that the Court must deal with competing injustices. There is “social injustice” that has disadvantaged minorities. There is “specific injustice in that California has not used the same criteria to choose among candidates for admission to law school”. In many difficult cases whatever the decision it will be unjust to one or more of the parties involved in the court case.

Murphy invites readers to think about the great issues that come before the American Supreme Court. He sets forth challenging cases. Murphy shows the reader that simplistic slogans cannot resolve the important cases of America.

As the leader of the Court Walsh seeks to build consensus but is never afraid to dissent.

I often find mysteries over long but true sagas need pages to provide their sweep to a grand story. The 600 pages of The Vicar of Christ barely encompass Walsh's life.

My next post will discuss the most striking transformation in the book as Walsh becomes the first American pope.


  1. It's very hard, Bill, to write a story about a larger-than-life character that is also credible. But it sounds as though that's what happens here, and that's all to the good. Often, a long novel doesn't need to be nearly as long as it is. But it sounds as though this one makes good use of the length, rather than weighing the story down. Thanks for sharing this one.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. You have to be as interested in ideas as actions to appreciate the length of The Vicar of Christ. It still feels contemporary 40 years after publication.