An agnostic clergyman in a civilized farce

The Naylors, by J. I. M. Stewart. New York: W. W. Norton. 192 pp. $13.95. Action, and plenty of it, is what you expect when you open a modern mystery novel -- unless the book happens to be by J. I. M. Stewart. Mr. Stewart was cited in A. C. Ward's ``20th Century English Literature'' as an example of how academics (like the poet C . Day-Lewis, pen-named Nicholas Blake) have found their way into the British mystery scene. As well as such learned works as ``Character and Motive in Shakespeare,'' Stewart has produced 19 ``straight'' novels and about 30 mysteries.

For ``straight'' novels, Stewart uses his own name and a jacket photo of himself hunched over a book with the label insouciantly showing on his tie. For mysteries, he adopts his Michael Innes pen name, uses more dialogue, and shows himself with his dog. But whatever the category, the setting is apt to be travel-poster Britain with its country houses, ancient universities, and gentle countryside.

In Stewart's latest ``straight'' novel, George Naylor (a man possessed of ``a dangerous sense of fun'') loses his faith -- and that not for the first time. This is serious, since George is an Anglican clergyman. The church establishment dispatches Father Hooker, a ponderous theologian (George's nieces and nephews call him ``the minder'') to help him find it again.

Despite theological discussion full of Latin phrases, scholarly references, and a kind of ironic wisdom, a suggestion of farce soon creeps in. We notice that the aristocratic head of the family would be quite at home in P. G. Wodehouse's Blandings Castle, and the butler's demeanor is definitely Jeeves-like. But there's something sinister here, too -- something about the way the Bomb keeps intruding in theological debate. Nothing is quite what it seems.

George's niece Hilda, toying with the notion of writing a novel, stumbles unwittingly on the kind of thing that is happening, though she gets some details wrong:

``The idea that had come to her turned on the arrival of Uncle George and the new minder. There was to be a grown-up family like her own, only larger, with all its members convinced of the worth and rightness of their several absorbing interests and concerns. An Uncle George, a clergyman turned suddenly agnostic, was to return among them, followed by a minder like this man Hooker. But despite the efforts of the minder -- or actually promoted by them in various ironical fashions she'd have to work out -- the Uncle George infection spread. One by one, the whole extended family lost whatever faith it had in one mundane thing or another. Universal aboulia (a splendid word) reigned.''

Hilda's plot sounds promising. One wonders if she would be able to tie any loose ends together more satisfactorily than Stewart. He left me with the feeling that he had grown tired of the whole thing and had simply thrown in the towel. His black-comedy ending is almost as ruthless as one of Peter de Vries's, who once allowed a character of his to perish from bitter cold when he tried to get into a locked house and got jammed halfway through the dog-door.

But I can almost forgive Stewart. After all, thanks to ``The Naylors,'' I have spent some hours in good company.

I enjoyed seeing modern Oxford through a scholar's eyes; liked feeling worthy to be entertained and educated with references to Eliot, Trollope, Donne, Hardy, and Faulkner; honored to be in on a discussion of ``War and Peace'' and free will. After all, if I want my reading a degree less scholarly, I can always turn to the works of Michael Innes and the doings of mystery solver Sir John Appleby.

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