Mari HowardJune 13, 2019

Shadow Doctor: the Past Awaits

by Adrian Plass

When I met Adrian Plass recently, I had to restrain myself from calling him Doc. Of course, Adrian hasn’t taken up a bachelor existence in the middle of a Sussex wood, nor does he go out intermittently on mysterious errands of mercy. No, this side of the Shadow Doctor more resembles a famous sleuth who also retired to a cottage only a few miles from Eastbourne, who similarly had a constantly mystified assistant, who similarly kept the details of his cases dark until they were completed, who likewise relied on a network of obscure assistants, and whose relationship with the official practitioners of his trade was similarly a little bit uneasy. Sherlock Holmes, of course.

Despite all this, there is a strong resemblance between Adrian and Michael (as this second Shadow Doctor book reveals his name to be), which lies not on the surface but at the heart of these books, where there is a very serious message. Frustratingly, it’s a message that you can’t put into words or formulae: it’s essentially an anti-formulaic message. That’s the point. And this is what poor Jack the Doctor’s assistant finds so hard, though in this second book he’s beginning to cotton on. He is starting to realize that the Doctor hasn’t got fixed ideas about how to deal with the people he gets involved with. He goes with the flow. Jack gets a little cross about The Flow at one point, because it’s so nebulous and unsystematic. Jack is an engaging specimen of the kind of person who abounds in Christian churches. They have been trained from childhood that everything really important in life — your salvation, your relationships, your personal behaviour — can be expressed in and should be regulated by a system of principles derived (sometimes controversially) from the Holy Bible.

In this sequel a few more layers of wrapping are painfully unwound from the Doctor and his past: his Christian name, snippets of his former married life, the crash that followed his wife’s death, the identity of the mysterious Derek, and the actual appearance of the lovely Martha. Also, how the Shadow Doctor got his title — though in reality Adrian invented the title first and (providentially, one might say) discovered its real-world meaning afterwards. As in the first book, we experience a series of encounters with people of various sorts with very different problems, and these encapsulate, arguably with greater force than in the first book, Adrian’s inexpressible message. It perhaps comes most shockingly near the surface in the Doc’s confrontation with a revered Christian evangelist and prophet. One wonders what Plass readers from a certain Christian background make of it. One is inclined to think that if they did not hear Looking Good, Being Bad, then neither will they hear this. But though it is very pointed, the Plass / Doc engagement is intended to bring about the good, in fact the very best, for those who are its objects: it’s based on love, though ‘love’ can itself be precisely one of those glib empty formulae that the Doc eschews.

There’s a heartwarming subplot in which Jack meets someone special, though things only go so far, suggesting, along with hints elsewhere in the story, that we are going to be treated to a third Shadow Doctor book. Jack also gets to find out the special thing that happened to his beloved grandmother — another almost indescribable, and definitely unclassifiable, event. Here, and in the other incidents of the story, including one where Jack participates in The Flow without knowing it (with delicious dramatic irony for readers who can do anagrams), the miraculous trickles along like an underground stream, way beyond either the control or the analytical powers of the actors in the drama. It’s this whisper of a distant hidden stream that gives the reader that convincing sense that Someone greater is at work within that drama.

Review by guest reviewer Edmund Weiner, who occasionally blogs (and not in German as the first post appears to be!) at http://philoloblog.blogspot.com/