Abbot Peter: Who is he?
Nuts, bolts and nuggets about this literary detective
Abbot Peter is a fictional character in the Abbot Peter Mysteries created by author Simon Parke. The Abbot works with DI Tamsin Shah to solve crime, usually murder, on the south coast of England, in the seaside town of Stormhaven – clearly based on the real town of Seaford. The series is set in the 1990s.
The Abbot is in his sixties, a keen runner – he completed the Saharan marathon on six occasions – and formerly the Abbot of St-James-the-Less monastery in the deserts of Middle Egypt, a day’s camel ride from the famous St Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. He was Abbot there for twenty years, and a brother there for ten years previously.
He now lives in Stormhaven, having been given a house on the beach front by a relation he never knew he had. The offer came at a time when he was both homeless and penniless in the desert, and seemed too good an offer to turn down. And so he left the desert for the sea, Egypt’s heat for England’s south coast and seagulls. No longer homeless, he remains penniless.
There is some confusion about Abbot Peter’s date of birth, but he has always believed it to be February 8th, 1929. His blood parents were the Armenian guru GI Gurdjieff, famous teacher of the 4th Way and one of his followers, Yorii Khan, a relationship recorded in the first Abbot Peter mystery, A Vicar, Crucified.
But it was a brief liaison and Yorii, not wishing for a child at her age, chose to offer Peter for adoption. And so young Peter, nine months old, moved from Southern Spain, where his mother lived in a commune, to Eltham in South London, where he was brought up by Mr and Mrs Payne, who felt they should have a child, but had so far failed to conceive one.
He does not remember this as a happy time. Thinking back, during the investigation in A Psychiatrist Screams, he remembers ‘his own childhood bedroom, a bland room, in a bland house in a bland road. What would he do now if allowed back? And what would he say to the boy who once slept there, suffocated there, hoping against hope for something better?’ His adopted parents changed his name from Peter to Graham, the same name as Mrs Payne’s father, who was dying of cancer at the time. Abbot Peter grew up as Graham Payne.
He was educated at a minor public school in Sussex called Ardingly, which Mr Payne, a civil servant, had attended and where he’d been ‘very happy’. The same could not be said for Graham who, though Head Boy at the time, was expelled for organising a sit-down protest in the school chapel, half way through a service.
He was glad to get to St Edmund Hall, Oxford where he read history. Here in the city of dreaming spires, he discovered a different sort of unhappiness but completed his degree, before a mental breakdown placed him in a London psychiatric unit for four months.
It was here he had the religious experience which led eventually to the monastery; here that he decided to return to his birth name of Peter; and here also that he fell in love with a nurse called Rosemary, who could not reciprocate his feelings. He was devastated. It was only after five years in the desert that Peter became grateful for this rejection, when he saw that Rosemary was exactly like his mother, and not what he needed at all.
He is not known to have had any relationships of a romantic nature since then. Many in Stormhaven assume he’s gay, and in A Director’s Cut he does experience the attentions of a stalker.
After his breakdown, in his early twenties, the only institution willing to employ him was Plumpton Agricultural College, next to the race course in mid-Sussex, where he worked in the kitchens for seven years being abused by rich young farmers, ‘who lacked the sensitivity of the animals they looked after’, before leaving for Egypt. He does admit to spitting in their water on occasion.
When Brother Peter became Abbot Peter, there was talk of St James-the-Less closing, with Peter seen as the right man to bring it quietly to its knees. But surprisingly – surprising for Peter at least – numbers grew quietly under his leadership, as pilgrims of all descriptions made their way to his door. The most dramatic event, however, was the time the monastery was invaded and taken over by a rogue military unit from a war nearby. Led by a psychopath commander, one of the brothers was hanged, and the Abbot’s life hung in the balance until resolution.
But internal desert politics – ‘enemies in dry places’, as Peter called them – brought his years in the desert to an end and it was at this time, with no obvious home or future, that he heard of a house in Stormhaven. As we discover in A Vicar, Crucified, ‘it was the surprising gift of a relation he’d never known, in a will he never saw, communicated by a solicitor he never met.’
It was in Stormhaven that his career as a detective starts when DI Shah calls on his services as a ‘Special Witness’, when the local vicar is murdered – a vicar Peter knew well. It’s a partnership that is to blossom, despite the fact that they disagree about everything. Peter’s ability to see inside people comes to the fore. As one local said, ‘If he didn’t hold it in such distaste, he could make money doing them Tarot cards.’
Abbot Peter has so far featured in five novels. A Vicar, Crucified takes him into the secrets and lies of a church community, when the vicar is found crucified in the vestry. A Psychiatrist Screams is set in a local therapy centre, the struggling Mind Gains clinic, where one of the therapists is murdered after a special Feast of Fools evening for staff and clients alike. The third in the series, A Director’s Cut pulls back the curtain on amateur dramatics, when the entrepreneurial director of a local theatre is found murdered on stage. In A (Very) Public School Murder, the hard-drinking, hard-smoking new Headmaster, Jamie King, is found dead at the bottom of the town’s famous white cliffs. And in the latest novel, The Indecent Death of a Madam, the cold-blooded execution of a pillar of the establishment both shocks and confounds.
Apart from a passion for running, silence and whisky, Peter is also a world authority on the Enneagram, a profound form of psychological understanding, which he discovered through his blood father, GI Gurdjieff. It features particularly in A Vicar, Crucified.
The stories are sequential, and while all include the Abbot and DI Shah, other characters do appear regularly including Martin Channing, the mischievous editor of the appalling local paper, the Sussex Silt; Shah’s boss, the unfortunately-named Chief Inspector Wonder; and the ambitious Stephen Straight, the Bishop of Lewes.
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