Low-Budget Review: Mark Schweizer’s The Alto Wore Tweed

Just finished The Alto Wore Tweed, which is the first book in a long time to make me laugh so helplessly I couldn’t keep reading it. Hayden Koenig, who narrates the book in the first person, is the police chief of a small New England town; he is independently wealthy and was a music major in college. He now is the absurdly over-qualified organist and choir for St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, the parishioners of which (including the narrator) are very Episcopalian, which is to say, not particularly Christian — Hayden, for example, appears to perceive no connection between being an Episcopalian and being constrained by any sort of New-Testament-compliant sexual ethic. When it comes to his sense of humor, Hayden seems to partake very much of the personality of the author, and big sections of the book are shockingly terrible parodies of Raymond Chandler that somehow made me think of a combination of Jasper Fforde and Dave Barry. These are written by Hayden and provided to the choir as inserts to their choir folders, thus providing them with, shall we say, inspiration during the sermons…as I say, Hayden is highly irreverent. He is also, as befits somebody who is a shameless music snob (“I will play for whomever and whatever I want, and I would no sooner play the organ for those wacko services than I would give a recital of Christy Lane’s Greatest Hits”) no fan of recent liturgical and theological developments in the Episcopal Church, and the ongoing war between himself and the recently appointed ultra-feminist female rector is something of a mismatch (and hardly a model of Christian charity on either side).

This book is not so much a detective novel (though there is a murder, and Hayden does have to solve it, and I was happy to see that the plot turns were sufficient to keep me from guessing it before the reveal, which doesn’t happen all that often)…not so much a detective novel, as it is a farce that uses the detective novel genre as an excuse to create over-the-top situations and characters for purposes of general amusement. One has the feeling that if Terry Pratchett gone for detective fiction rather than fantasy, and also had done a better job of staying on his meds, he might well have written something like The Alto Wore Tweed. That is to say, Schweizer at least pretends to be writing realistic fiction, with which pretense Pratchitt (who after all is living in the relatively constraint-free world of magical fantasy) dispenses. But the P.G. Wodehouse / Douglas Adams / Dave Barry mindset is always lurking, and now and then Schweizer lets it come out and play in outrageously funny scenes that you know wouldn’t happen in real life but that you can’t help but feel might happen, at least as long as you’re in the village of St. Germaine…and if it did happen, you certainly would want to be there to watch the fun.

As politics has, rather sadly, become something that a great many people cannot laugh about, I think Schweizer has probably limited his audience quite a bit by mercilessly lampooning the lunatic fringe of the Far Left (though the discomfiture of the fundamentalist Southern Baptist preacher when an outdoor funeral is rudely interrupted by a floating helium-filled sex doll is at least as great as the discomfiture of the feminist rector when she accidentally inhales a couple of lungfuls of incense and forgets to turn off her wireless microphone when she flees to the restroom to worship the porcelain god — oh, sorry, goddess). That’s too bad, because everyone should laugh at himself now and then, and Schweizer’s parody of a “Wymmyn’s Liturgy” is pretty funny, as is this excerpt from his Chandler parody:

She handed me a memo. It was from the bishop all right and I was his church music commission toady. I opened the memo and gave it the once-over. Another PCD — Politically Correct Directive.

“Beginning immediately,” the memo said, “all new music compositions must contain a minimum of 50% ‘nonwhite’ notes. (Also, in keeping within the national and diocesan guidelines, all whole and half notes will be known as ‘pigmentally impoverished.’)

As church musicians, we must also be aware that, although albino-genetic recessive notes tend to move faster and jump higher than pigmentally impoverished notes, we must not perpetuate this stereotype. Pigmentally impoverished notes must be allowed to achieve their true and full potential, and not be held back by any of the ‘so called’ traditional composers. By the same token, notes-of-color must be allowed to proceed at their own pace.”

I had heard it all before, but now the bishop was taking it up a notch.

Now this will probably mortally offend some readers, which is a shame, because they are likely to miss Hayden’s ad-lib Thanksgiving prayer, offered — as his girlfriend reminds him when the subject later arises, in front of said girlfriend’s relatives:

Thank you God for dairy products including cheese and this, the 26th day of November, we thank you especially for Roquefort, Brie and all the many varieties of cheddar. Thank you God for turkeys who willingly gave their lives that we might celebrate your bounty. Thank you God for grain from which we get our bread and beer. Thank you God for all your many vegetables, especially Raymond Burr. And thank you God for hamsters and all the little things that make our life worth living. Amen.

Raymond Burr? As Hayden explains in defending himself, “He was the only vegetable I could think of on the spur of the moment.”

The Social Justice Warrior may well be enraged by the Wymmyn’s Conference and Hayden/Schwiezer’s brutal treatment thereof; but it would be a shame if the SJW were to hurl the book across the room and miss out on the dueling Nativity scenes destined to enter into St. Germaine holiday lore, or (a couple of books further along in the series) the equally savage and hilarious treatment of the Iron Mike Men’s Retreat, or (returning to the present book) the tragic chain of events that causes one fundamentalist Christian to think that the Rapture is taking place. (This scene may well drive Baptists away as efficiently as the Wymmyn’s Liturgy exorcises SJW’s from the Schweizer Readers’ Club; it pushes the boundaries of humor in much the same way that Monty Python were wont to do.) The truth is that Schweizer is Haley Joel Osment’s first cousin once removed or something, only Schweizer sees ridiculous people — and has a high old time writing them into his novel so that he can turn the Ridiculous up to eleven.

At any rate, if you are a Social Justice Warrior type who thinks that These Things Are Serious, or if you are a fundamentalist Christian who is made highly uncomfortable by books with recurring sex doll motifs, or if you are a real live actual New Testament Christian who is still sad about having been driven out of the Episcopal Church lest you share by association in its mortal sin and therefore will find that the casually pagan hedonism of the main characters and the lunatic diocesan politics reopen old wounds, then I guess you should take this as a “trigger warning” and avoid the book. But then I myself…well, I admit that nobody would ever confuse me with an SJW. (I have checked my privilege and it appears to be in good working order.) But I am an evangelical Christian who does not approve of the use of sex dolls, who found my last few years in the Episcopal Church to be theologically frustrating, and who in particular found the politics of Diocesan Convention to border on the intolerable…and yet I personally laughed until I cried.

So, except for persons covered in the above trigger warning: highly, highly recommended, if you like Monty Python, Douglas Adams, P. G. Wodehouse, Dave Barry, and the recently-and-all-to-lamentably late Terry Pratchett. And I am given to understand, from the readership statistics, that many women like the series too.

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