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Some Rise by Sin by Philip Caputo

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on May 9, 2017

With its invocation of a flawed priest struggling with moral choices in a harsh land, Some Rise by Sin channels Graham Greene and Umberto Eco. Priests make interesting characters because their failings and hypocrisies are sharpened by the pious and virtuous lives to which they aspire. They also face particular challenges as they try to balance religious and secular law and moral imperatives that might be at odds with their faith. Philip Caputo does justice to those themes.

Father Riordan feels his faith is being put to the test in Mexico. He is saying too many funeral masses for young people he should be marrying. Mexico’s cartels and gangs have splintered, but the war between crime and the state continues, except when the criminals and the corrupt government are working together. Riordan’s village has armed itself in self-defense, prompting the army’s efforts to disarm them, sometimes with results that are fatal to unarmed villagers who demonstrate against the army.

Father Riordan would like to end the death of innocents but an army captain, supported by the federales, has a different plan. He wants Riordan to violate the sanctity of the confessional, to become an informant against villagers who help the criminals (usually because they face death if they refuse).

Ultimately, Riordan must make a choice. If he does not reveal what he learned in a confession, innocent people will surely die. If he does break the seal of the confession, he sends a bad message about the trustworthiness of the church and the value of the sacrament.

It is that choice that gives Some Rise by Sin much of its dramatic tension. Similar issues provide insight into Riordan’s character. How can Riordan help a young girl move on with her life when he must tell her that it would be sinful to abort the fetus that was conceived by rape?

Riordan feels powerless trying to do good while surrounded by bandits and drug dealers who kill easily and without remorse. And he feels ineffectual when he hears confessions from young men who will not change their behavior, because they cannot change without forfeiting their lives. All of that makes Riordan an interesting character, and Philip Caputo has the strong writing ability that is required to convey those moral dilemmas in convincing terms without resorting to melodrama.

Some Rise by Sin asks us to chew upon the notion that “the devil’s minions are numerous … they roam the world, seeking the ruin of souls.” Some people (perhaps not Riordan) believe that to be literally true, but as a metaphor for evil and temptation, there is little doubt that the notion is valid. Can evil be exorcised as a demon might? Perhaps, if you believe (as a priest suggests) that evil is irrational and cannot be “overcome by reason.” On the other hand, reason might be the best and only weapon that saves us from irrational evil.

The other characters are also an interesting mix. They include gangsters, cops (mostly corrupt), parishioners, a female assassin, and a couple of American lesbians. Lisette is a doctor who has founded a small clinic in Riordan’s remote village, and her bipolar partner is an artist named Pamela. Their relationship drama involves Lisette’s uncertainty about the role in which Pamela has cast her.

At some point, the spotlight shifts from Riordan to Lisette, their stories tied together by the police and drug gangs. The story is less compelling when it drifts away from Riordan, but by the end, the focus is back on the story’s most interesting character. All of the characters are strong and the novel raises challenging moral and political questions, including whether Mexico can overcome its tradition of retribution, the need for blood to compensate blood. While Some Rise by Sin might not appeal to readers who are looking for a thriller (although it does have some tense, but nicely unstated, moments), it should appeal to readers who will appreciate a literary glimpse at a troubled country.


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