Guzlowski, John. “Little Altar Boy”, Kasva Press, 2020.
A Noir/Crime Novel
During the 1960s in Chicago in a refugee and immigrant neighborhood, detective Hank Purcell is at home when there is a knock on his door. Sister Mary Philomena has come to him because she has seen something terrible at Saint Fidelis Church and it is a violation of all that she considers sacred. She asks Hank and his partner, Marvin Bondarowicz, to look into a pedophile priest who she believes is abusing altar boys. Not long afterwards, Sister Mary is found murdered in the convent basement, next to a furnace stuffed with old papers and photographs. The case now becomes more complicated as it seems that the murder and pedophilia are connected in some way. As if his hands are not already full, Hank’s teenage daughter, has disappeared and she just might have been kidnapped by drug dealers.
The case is especially difficult because the Catholic Church is involved and Hank and Marvin must find a way to break through the wall the Church as around itself, attempting to protect its own. The story is based on a memory from Guzlowski’s childhood in his church parish in 1955. Three of the five priests there were pedophiles and quite naturally the Archdiocese of Chicago was determined to keep this quiet. Hank and Marvin had been affected by what they witnessed in World War II and this adds another layer to the plot. Guzlowski uses this subplot to show how war affects those who participated in it. He also reflects on the crimes that are committed in refugee/immigrant neighborhoods and his descriptions are full and often brutal and that unlike some of the dramas we see in public media, crimes like these are not easily solved. Not only do our detectives face terrible crimes, they have to deal with their own feelings as they work through the case.
I find that the fact that pedophilia in the Church is not only shocking but that it is still going on and devout Catholics still place their church above all. When the news first broke about pedophile priests, many refused to believe it and continued reacting to the church as they had always done while knowing that abuse remains active. The uniqueness of this book is the way we are pulled into the story and are constantly aware that not much has changed regarding pedophile priests. It only took a couple of pages before I was totally immersed in the events of the story—so much so that I finished the book in one sitting and wondering why these kinds of events are happening still today. Have we not learned from the past?
Guzlowski is a fine storyteller and as I stated earlier, he is a whiz at description. This is, by no means, an easy read and there were times that I was so emotionally involved in the story that there were several times that I had to look up from the pages and relax a bit. On the other hand, I could not stop reading. I did not feel a sense of relief upon finishing the novel because knowing what we know, it is only a matter of time before more cases of pedophilia at the hands of priests will come to the fore. Guzlowski makes us very aware of this. I deliberately have avoided writing in detail about the plot because I want readers to share the experience of reading a well written novel without knowing some of the facts ahead of time.