Brothers Keepers by Donald E Westlake

published 1975

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[Brother Benedict has stepped out of his monastery in New York to buy a newspaper]

I strode briskly down Lexington Avenue toward the newsstand, brown robe whistling round my legs, cross dangling at my side from the white cord that encircled my waist, sandals slapping the pavement with a double th-thwack. It was a beautiful crisp late autumn evening, the first weekend in December, perfect for a walk. The air was clean and chill, the sky was clear, and a few of the brightest stars could actually be seen through New York’s aureole.

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The sidewalks were crowded with Saturday night revellers; couples strolling hand in hand, cheerful groups in loud happy conversation. I returned the occasional surprised look with a smile and a nod, and strode on.

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commentary: Brothers Keepers is an astonishing tour de force, and I am forever grateful for Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery for introducing me to it. It was one of her favourite books read last year, and I am going to quote from her description of the plot:

Brother Benedict is a member of the Crispinite order, numbering only 16 monks, which has occupied a building in midtown Manhattan, built by the original monks on leased land.  Brother Benedict discovers in the newspaper that the building that they are housed in will be demolished along with the rest of the block they live on. This order has a prohibition against travel unless absolutely necessary; thus the brothers are disturbed that they will have to leave the home they love. They believe that they have a legal right to stay, based on their lease, but the lease is missing. This is highly suspicious. They search for ways to prevent the demolition of the block, but they are thwarted everywhere they turn.

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So, first of all it is hilariously funny, I could quote from it all day. The humour reminded me of blog favourite Terry Pratchett: sly, witty and charming.

At a monastery meeting,
Brother Clemence got wearily to his feet, like Clarence Darrow in Tennessee.
A previous Abbott wrote a 14-volume novel based on the life of St Jude the Obscure:
“Do you recommend it?”
“Not wholeheartedly,” Brother Oliver [the current Abbot] said.
When the monks are looking at an ancient document written on a long scroll,
Four of us had to hold it down, like a sailor having his leg amputated in a pirate movie.
And the description of the monks doing callasthenics in their robes is very fine.

At the same time, the book brings up all kinds of questions – do the monks have a right to stay in their building? The legal aspect is the main consideration, but the ethical concerns also come up, and Westlake is very fair-minded, and amid the jokes there are good points being made on both sides. And then: what happens if Brother Benedict is attracted to a young woman – the landlord’s daughter - and what can he do about it?

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In addition, our protagonist’s journeys out of the monastery in an attempt to save the order – the dreaded Travel – give us a fascinating picture of how 1970s New York would appear to someone who lived a cloistered life. His trip to the airport – walking the last few miles he is stopped by suspicious police – is a particularly fine section, with many descriptions of 1970s life on the way. The policemen try to catch him out (can he really be a monk?) by asking him about the Assumption (key Catholic belief), to which Brother Benedict says
It is the attitude you’re supposed to have toward my innocence, but I think what you’re referring to is Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.
It is a clever, beautifully-worked out book, and a joy to read. It’s a shame it’s out of print, though you can pick up second hand copies easily.

I now must read more of Westlake. I believe the setting (religious community – beloved to me as a background for a crime book) is not typical of his oeuvre.

The book contains a very nice map of the monastery, though this didn’t seem either essential or relevant to the story…

I have covered many books featuring such communities on the blog - I even wrote a piece for the Guardian about nun books, but, exactly, they are all about nuns. And I found some great pictures. Monks obviously don’t feature so often in literature, and it is very hard to find 20th century pictures of them. (‘Monk in NY’ searches tend to bring up Thelonius Monk. Fair play.) I did the best I could. And have thrown in a few pictures of how people might have looked to Brother Benedict when he ventured out.

The b/w photo of monks is called The Monks of Kennaquhair by Robert Adamson and dates from long before Brother Benedict.

The group picture is of some Irish brothers in the 1920s, from the National Library of Ireland.

Religious habits from Wikipiedia.

B/w photo of NY couple is by James Jowers from George Eastman House.

Other pics adverts from the era.


  1. Westlake's work does have a lot of wit in it, Moira, and I'm glad you found that in this one. I like the sense of timing in his work, too. I wonder what you'll think of his Dortmunder novels or his Parker novels as Richard Stark. I admire authors like Westlake who can do very different series and standalones.

    1. I am definitely moving on to other works of his ,and looking forward to it. The Parker books have been recommended to me...

  2. I am very relieved that you liked this novel, Moira. This is a lovely post, and the quotes and the images are perfect. As you say, one of my favorite of last year's reads. Margot is right about the variety in his novels, and this one is really different. I mostly read the humorous ones when I was younger, and now I have tried some of the grittier ones. I am aiming to read more of his books this year.

    1. I think it'll be one of my favourites, Tracy, and am very grateful for the recommendation! I am looking forward to reading more by him. Which ones will you read next?

    2. I don't have many more by Westlake. He doesn't come up much at the book sale, so I will have to go searching more online. Probably next I will read Baby, Would I Lie?: A Romance Of The Ozarks, a 2nd Sara and Jack novel. I also have Smoke, which I know nothing about. And the third Hunter novel, as Richard Stark. And a couple of Dortmunder novels. But I want to read those in order.

    3. You are so completist Tracy, you always impress me so much! I have downloaded the first Parker book...

  3. Moira, you are a bad influence! Not only have you encouraged me to buy another book, but you've prevented me from tidying/washing/ironing etc by sending me chasing off looking at other blogs, and exploring your links to nuns, lipstick, Yeats, kimonos, and Edna O'Brien and a wonderful hat! Plus I've had to search for Cadfael (the monkish connection) and Father Brown (a priest is a bit like a monk, surely)... Now, fortified by tea and biscuits, I must read...

    But I have sent you a link to a lovely photo of monks building Buckfast Abbey in the early 20thC because their story includes travel and loss of home - ejected during the Dissolution of the Monasteries they returned some 340 years later (well, their successors did, obviously) and built a new abbey. I trust Brother Benedict and his colleagues don't have to resort to a self-build project!

    1. That's a fabulous picture, thank you so much! The monasteries story in the UK is very up and down...
      And I should feel guilty about using up so much of your time, but I'm taking it as a huge compliment. Thank you.

  4. Glad you liked the picture. Saw it when we visited Buckfast and it stuck it my mind because the monks looked so Medieval, as if nothing had changed since the original building was erected. And all those 'new to me' crime books keep me going on train trips backwards and forwards to Mum - I enjoyed 'What Dread Hand' by the way, but was so immersed I almost missed the station!

    1. Have been sharing the pic, it is so charming. And glad you are enjoying the books...

  5. Sounds like my sort of book, don't think I have this one of his.

    1. Have you read anything by him? He sounds right up your street, surely something in the tubs? I'm only sorry it's taken me so long to get round to him.

    2. Read a few of him as Westlake, but a lot more under his Richard Stark pseudonym. 20-odd Westlake's in the tubs and eight more Richard Stark's to complete the Parker series.

    3. I'm going for a Richard Stark next...


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