Murder at the Altar: An important issue, poorly handled

Murder at the Altar: An important issue, poorly handled

Great literature has something to say. The characters, the plot, the literary devices may have intrinsic interest, but they also act as vehicles to convey the message of the work.

In Murder at the Altar, it is hard to determine author Terry Phillips’ message.

The story centers around the murder of the controversial Archbishop Ghevont Tourian in December 1933 as Sunday service began at the Holy Cross Church in New York City.

His topic is a major turning point not just in the history of the Armenian Church or the Armenian-American community, but truly an episode in Armenian history in general that deserves a closer look – no matter how painful that introspection might end up being. Unfortunately, the means which Mr. Phillips utilized to spark self-reflection are far from satisfactory.

A matter of style

The greatest obstacle to a positive impression of the work is the style.

The narration is rather simplistic, while the progress of the story is overly complex. Chapters of varying and inconsistent lengths go from “Then” to “Now” in a disconnected manner, the movement of the story being lost in these constant flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Adding to the confusion, the “Now”s are first-person narratives, while the “Then”s are in the third person, even though they both feature the same protagonist.

And just when is Now? At first it seemed like it was the 1970s (the “Then” events having been, factually, in 1933-34), but toward the end of the work, more modern devices are referenced, such as e-mail.

Needlessly cliffhanger chapter endings and the rather cheap treatment of sex at one point didn’t really add anything at all to the story either.

Most disconcertingly, what was fact in the work and what was the author’s invention were unfortunately muddled.

Fact vs. Fiction

The author insinuates that there was more to the archbishop’s murder than what was officially reported. This would be a major revelation – only it is impossible to discern whether that is simply Mr. Phillips’ addition to the story, or if he did indeed uncover startling new facts.

A list is provided at the end of the book to differentiate between real people and fictitious ones in the story, but no explicit mention is made of which were the real facts in the book, as opposed to artistic license.

A certain character “is inferred from various sources, but cannot be proved based on the available evidence,” Mr. Phillips writes in his author’s note at the end. Unfortunately, without revealing too much, it is this very character’s existence that would change the nature of the Tourian murder and its possible implications.

Also in the author’s note, Mr. Phillips says:

“As a journalist, I’m committed to the truth. My dilemma: how best to tell this tale? Writing a fact-based novel turned out to be the most effective way to achieve my goal….

“To the best of my knowledge, nothing I’ve written conflicts with what actually happened. Nevertheless, this dramatization is not intended to be pure history, nor should the reader treat it as such.”

“The most effective way” to achieve which goal? I wish Mr. Phillips had taken up other options in resolving his dilemma, because, the manner in which this is executed is far from satisfying.

Other issues

Meanwhile, the book is replete with typos, the kinds that would not take much proofreading at all to avoid. It is very off-putting, especially for the serious reader.

There are also technical oversights, such as referring to a “Tashnag society” (hardly the normal usage) and to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation within a few pages of each other. The uninitiated reader would have no way of knowing that they are one and the same organization. Perhaps Mr. Phillips did not expect or aim for a readership outside of Armenian circles.

All in all, the impression one gets is that the book was written in a hurry. And yet, the research it required suggests that it is the work of many years.

This is Mr. Phillips’ first book, and an admirable effort without a doubt, involving painstaking research. But I would have much rather read a report, a factual account of the events – much in the way Edward Alexander treated Soghomon Tehlirian and the assassination of Talaat Pasha in A Crime of Vengeance – including the historical background, the future implications, even how it affected the rift in the Church during the Cold War.

I should like to invite Mr. Phillips to do just that, because it seems that he has indeed carried out ground-breaking research into this seminal event in our history.

And if there are some aspects missing, some things that can be inferred but not proved, leave that to the reader. Present the evidence that is available, take the reader along on the thought process and investigation, and then let the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, if need be.

That would probably call for a shorter book, but it would have a much greater impact as a thought-provoking work, especially if the goal of the book was to raise this issue in the Armenian community. Discussing the Tourian murder and reconciling with it could even go so far as to instigate a significant first step toward reconciling our divided church.

If, on the other hand, Mr. Phillips goal in writing this work was not to revisit and reflect on those events and their impact, it remains unclear why this book was written