The Odd Fellows Society
Ink & Image Media II, November 2015
A thriller that begins and ends with a chicken is something that has to capture your attention. Santiago Torres, a Jesuit priest in Washington, D.C., is supposed to meet his historian friend, Jasper Willoughs one February evening, but is instead handed a live chicken by an Asian woman. Since Jasper is notorious for being impulsive and late, Santi is at first more concerned that it looks like snow – and what on earth to do with the chicken – than he is about Jasper’s well-being. Exasperated and cold, Santi leaves the meeting place, because as headmaster of a prestigious private school, there’s no way he can miss the parent-teacher meetings he has scheduled. But sadly, it turns out that this time Jasper is a no-show because he has died.
I think it would be impossible to read this book without thinking about The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. There are many similarities: an overt society, the Jesuits, are heavily manipulated by a covert shadow group, the Stewards; Jasper has left treasure hunt style clues for Santi to follow; there is a gorgeous and clever love interest; there’s a focus on research and academia; and interesting facts about the history of Washington and its monuments and buildings are woven into the storyline.
The Odd Fellows Society has a much more good-natured and humorous tone interspersed with all the drama, though, and I felt much of its strength came from its warmth. It’s a complicated thriller, not just because of the mystifying clues that Jasper has left, but also because of all the different themes and sub-plots that Barrett packs into the narrative. During the course of his adventure, Santi struggles to understand his difficult relationship with his FBI brother, Nico, and he tries to battle the seemingly unchangeable racism within his school. As well, Santi experiences constant tension in his role as a priest versus his obligations as a teacher and an employer, and especially in his long-time romantic love for his old friend, Abby.
This book was a lot of fun. Santiago was a very human character, doing his best but often baffled about what his next steps should be, and so easy to relate to. Next to Santi, my favourite characters were his blunt secretary, Pearl, and her irreverent computer whiz son, Bradley. This is an ambitious novel that avoids being sprawling, or too much like a comic book, because it’s filled with romantic yet imperfect characters doing unexpected things. Barrett successfully combines seriousness and entertainment in a very fast-moving thriller in The Odd Fellow Society, where nothing is exactly what it seems – not even the chicken.
Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, June 2016.