A. J. Cronin Essay - Cronin, A(rchibald) J(oseph)

Cronin, A(rchibald) J(oseph)


A(rchibald) J(oseph) Cronin 1896–1981

Scottish novelist, dramatist, and nonfiction writer.

Cronin's internationally best-selling novels examine moral conflicts between the individual and society. His heroes, who include doctors, missionaries, and small-town newspaper editors, are idealists in pursuit of justice for the common citizen. Although Cronin's novels are set in the twentieth century, they remind critics of works by the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy. Like those earlier novels, Cronin's are moralistic and feature dramatic plots, powerful themes, and memorable characters. Some of his novels have been made into films.

When in his thirties, Cronin abandoned a lucrative medical career to become a writer. His literary debut, the novel Hatter's Castle (1931), was a popular and critical success. Percy Hutchinson proclaimed it "a restoration of the English novel," having "the stuff of greatness." Other early successes included the novels The Stars Look Down (1935), The Citadel (1937), and The Keys of the Kingdom (1941). The Stars Look Down recounts the struggles of miners during a strike in a Welsh coal town. Cronin draws an unsentimental picture of the losses suffered by both the workers and the company when basic human values are neglected. The Citadel was controversial among the British medical community due to its examination of the conflict between medical ethics and what must be done to survive in a competitive field. The Keys of the Kingdom is the story of a priest who must temper his individuality in order to fulfill his commitments to the church.

In addition to The Stars Look Down and The Citadel, Cronin wrote several other novels that are based on his personal experiences. The Green Years (1945) and its sequel, Shannon's Way (1950), recount the life of an idealistic young man who, upon entering medical school, is supervised by an unscrupulous department head. The young man later begins to practice in a clinic in a rundown urban area and finds his work unexpectedly rewarding. A Song of Sixpence (1964) is an autobiographical novel that, according to Cronin, comes closest of all his work to representing his true literary aspirations.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vol. 102 [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vol. 25 [obituary].)

Hugh Walpole

To say that [Dr. Cronin's] first novel ["Hatter's Castle"] is causing a sensation is putting it most mildly. He has been reviewed … almost in terms of hysteria. Wherever I go I find that his book is being read—not merely read, but devoured. People sit with their feet on the fender … and their noses in the page almost as they have not done since the days of Dickens.

And yet Dr. Cronin's novel can very easily be criticized. It will be criticized on every side. It will be said that it is imitative …, it will be said that it is old-fashioned, melodramatic and that the general catastrophe is far too thorough to be true. All these criticisms can be made with justice….

[The chief reason that] "Hatter's Castle" is having so sensational a career is that Dr. Cronin, in writing it, has been afraid of nothing. He has not been afraid lest people should call him a fool, he has not been afraid of the hackneyed situation (he has a fine scene of the errant daughter thrust into the stormy night by her irate father….), he is not afraid of melodrama …, and he refuses altogether to be subjective. He tells you nothing at all about Dr. Cronin except that he knows obviously about women's pains and diseases.

The result of this indifference to comment is a terrific creative force! You may, when the book is closed, look back and let play with your superior mind, but while the narrative proceeds you are absolutely held. Dr. Cronin has a superb narrative gift and he can create character like Thomas Hardy. He is not Thomas Hardy. He writes very often badly, he does not suggest the larger destinies, he has none of Hardy's wonderful poetic beauty, but the wife of James Brodie is worthy to be set beside the Mayor of Casterbridge: he would not be ashamed of her company.

Now enough of these comparisons. The fact is that the triumph of "Hatter's Castle" is another step in the return of the objective novel to English fiction….

Hugh Walpole, "London Letter: June," in New York Herald Tribune Books, June 28, 1931, p. 9.

Percy Hutchison

Except for "Wuthering Heights" and "Jude the Obscure," it would be impossible to cite another serious novel in English so cumulative of horror as "Hatter's Castle." There have, of course, been scores of stories written with the deliberate purpose of making the reader's hair stand on end and chills course up and down the spine. But the creation of such works is a kind of game, in which the writer is abetted by the reader; entertainment is the purpose of the author's tour de force. "Hatter's Castle" we take to be no such book. Dr. Cronin, we are convinced, has gone about his work scarcely less seriously than did Emily Brontë; his delineation of James Brodie [the protagonist] is clearly intended as portraiture, and the novel, therefore, is not to be judged from the standards set up by Poe and Stevenson. We say all this at the outset, for Dr. Cronin, in ways that will be made apparent, is so little of an artist that his work fails as a whole by reason of an overemphasis which lends an air of artificiality when, if we are right, exactly the opposite was intended….

James Brodie is Scotch-Irish, the scene of the story is Scotland, and the period a half-century ago. This last makes Brodie a bit more plausible, for the tyrant father (witness Patrick Brontë) was more in evidence then than he is today. But James Brodie is more than a mere tyrant, he is a pathological case, controlled by delusions of grandeur and later by the demon of drink. Thus, at the outset, the central character of the narrative is placed outside the human pale; he is largely irresponsible, and if the horror at the suffering which innocent persons are forced to endure at Brodie's hands is thereby increased, and pity for them augmented, the actual effect is vastly less than the novelist desired, because the cumulative catastrophe is seen as one of those "acts of God" against which there is no insurance. If Mary, wanting but a few months to become a mother, is kicked bodily out of the house, and the over-wrought Nessie is goaded into hanging herself, the reader may, indeed, weep, but he weeps as for one struck by lightning or overwhelmed in ship-wreck….

It is proof of Dr. Cronin's inability to maintain artistic control of his concept and his material that when he finds the death of [Dennis Foyle, whom Mary loves,] necessitated by the plan of his narrative, he cannot compass the event except by another burst of melodrama, as if he had not enough of melodrama behind him and before. To have Dennis go to his death with an entire trainload of people when a bridge gives way in a storm is to produce precisely the opposite of the effect required at the moment, for it attracts an attention which should remain concentrated on the tragedy of poor Mary, a tragedy which is immeasurably to deepen.

It is possible that Dr. Cronin, listening to old wives' tales in...

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Dorothy Van Doren

Not since "Wuthering Heights" have we had a horror story that so completely satisfies all the requirements of the genre [as does "Hatter's Castle"]. Hatter's Castle is the home of a great, blustering, egocentric paranoiac, a hatter in a small Scottish town fifty years ago. James Brodie is convinced of his noble birth; he is a large, handsome man, domineering, brutal, deluded with visions of his own grandeur. The tale of his downfall, which is brought about by the destruction or death of every member of his family save one, makes the book. At the end he is a skeleton of his former self, destroyed by drink, by the failure of his last hope, by his own vast, vain aspirations and desires. (p. 113)

This, of course, is not a cheery tale. But the horror story is meant not to cheer but to harrow, and Mr. Cronin has faithfully fulfilled his task. He has done more. His story is differentiated from the ordinary example of its class in two ways. One is his successful combination of romantic terror and realism. When it is necessary to present a scene of unhappiness or desolation or sordidness, no pains are spared to make the picture clear. None of the elegant circumlocutions which sheltered the reader of earlier tales is employed. A spade is described as it is, and if filth clings to it, then the filth is given its proper name. Moreover, Mr. Cronin, incredibly enough, inspires pity in the reader for James Brodie…. He might have been a cheap,...

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Fred T. Marsh

Dr. Cronin's second novel ["Three Loves"] is less powerful but more convincing than its predecessor—"Hatter's Castle"; it is less fantastic and more modern; less gripping, perhaps, but more moving. In short, it is not so extraordinary a feat of virtuosity, imitative but effective, but it is a more genuine piece of work. Both novels are laid in Scotland near Glasgow. The time of "Three Loves," which centers on the turn of the century, is a generation later. And the second, like the first, is essentially a psychological drama, based on the life of a single individual—although melodrama is freely used to heighten effects. The writing is smooth and flowing, failing in emphasis, however, and lacking in original...

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Percy Hutchison

Radically as Dr. Cronin's new novel ["Three Loves"] differs in plot and episode from "Hatter's Castle," so indelibly does this author impress his personality on his work that one will recognize the same hand behind both. Nor is this all, for in one particular is there similarity. In the first of the two books it is a man's stubbornness, an uprightness that leans backward, that eventually accomplishes his ruin. In "Three Loves" it is a woman's stubbornness. Here, however, the analogy ends. In "Hatter's Castle" James Brodie breaks most of the lives about him, and his own defeat is unrelieved by anything that could be called a victory. Lucy Moore, on the other hand, although she brings sufficient pain to others, and a...

(The entire section is 1214 words.)

Percy Hutchison

In "Grand Canary" we have the third venture by the author of "Hatter's Castle" and "Three Loves" in the field of fiction. A. J. Cronin, it will be recalled, is a London physician who has deserted medicine for the novel—not, we take it, because he likes medicine less, but because he likes authorship more. And just as "Three Loves" differed radically from "Hatter's Castle," so does the new narrative differ from both….

Those who read Dr. Cronin's earlier novels recognized that the author had a flair for direct narration which placed him apart from the general run of modern novelists. At the same time, perhaps because of his long experience in the sickroom, he had also a human understanding likewise...

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Graham Greene

Undoubtedly an aesthetic pleasure can be gained from reading Dr. Cronin, the pleasure of observing a certain kind of novelist flowering with a superb unconsciousness. [In Grand Canary], pressed between two covers, is a perfect example of the Popular Novelist. Viewed in this light his defects become positive qualities. One is inclined to praise his inability to create a plausible human being, for one real character would break the book and Dr. Cronin's importance as an Awful Example. A long literary pedigree is of importance to characters in a novel of this class; it is a badge of respectability, an assurance to the reader: "You have met us all before in the best of company. There will be nothing to shock,...

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Percy Hutchison

One of the most interesting of present-day literary figures is A. J. Cronin, the London physician who at the age of 34 suddenly abandoned an increasing practice to become a writer of fiction. Seldom has a first novel received the acclaim accorded Dr. Cronin's "Hatter's Castle." In his fourth venture, "The Stars Look Down," there is to be found the same fearless handling of his theme, the same impressive understanding of men and women and motives, which made the first novel noteworthy.

It is important, this fact of A. J. Cronin's medical career, for it throws light both on his point of view and his method. In "Hatter's Castle" he did not get entirely away from his consulting room. James Brodie, the...

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Eleanor Clark

Judging only by the stature and intricacy of ["The Stars Look Down"], one would incline to think of the author's career as meteoric. This has not been the case. Like most great achievements the book is the culmination of lesser endeavors, experiments in the medium embodying a restricted philosophy, a personal moral. It is the logical development from "Hatter's Castle," Dr. Cronin's first novel…. "Hatter's Castle" was a passionate but unsatisfying book, both in style and subject matter more imitative of the Victorians than integral to our own world. Its interest was chiefly pathological and the suffering described was of a world apart, understandable only as the conclusion drawn from a possible but peculiar premise....

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Mabel S. Ulrich

For the theme of ["The Citadel"], his fourth novel, Dr. Cronin has drawn on his experiences in the study and practice of medicine and has given us a vivid portrait of an intelligent, hardheaded young physician struggling to gain a foothold in his profession. A theme hardly unusual enough to cause the British medical lions to rear on their hind legs as they did and yelp a passionate protest. The crux of the matter lies of course in the fact that the author in its telling committed the unpardonable offense of dragging from the medical fraternity's closet its own privately sequestered skeletons. (p. 5)

The conflict between medical honesty and a competitive society is only the primary theme of this...

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Alfred Kazin

Six years ago Dr. Cronin came in like a lion, to the fanfare of a critical acclaim that bracketed his name with those of Ibsen, Hardy and Charlotte Brontë. British fiction, so thin and nervous since the war, seemed a little more human. Here, it was generally felt, was a doctor who had deserted the surgery because of a genuine literary compulsion, a man whose first book was a solid and resounding tragedy, a writer who seemed able to plow his way through the sickliness and the corruption of trivial realism. Dr. Cronin wrote competently; it was obvious that he wrote passionately; and whatever one thought of his claim to greatness, there was a general, pleased feeling that some one solid had arrived.


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Otis Ferguson

Here is another of those fascinating excursions, by way of fiction, into the regions of men at work, under the conditions of life—"The Citadel." As fiction it has excellent living stuff in whole blocks of pages; and there are blocks where the events necessary to the main design are too abrupt and pat for their necessary effect. But I shouldn't care to judge this novel under the ordinary fictional rules until the term fiction has been widened to include credits for large experience, a balanced judgment thereon and story-teller's knack for recreation thereof; and narrowed to rule out all this review-supplement bosh of credit for Industry and Effort, especially of credit for Correct Conduct along the line of this or...

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Mary Ross

In "The Keys of the Kingdom" as in his preceding novel, "The Citadel" Dr. Cronin tells the story of a man who faced life directly, without cant and with the will to serve his fellow men. The priest in the present story, like the doctor in the widely discussed earlier novel, is an individualist in the sense that his conscience, not his self-interest must be his guide. In the Church, as in the medical profession, that necessity entails courage, disillusion, often personal disadvantage and disappointment….

This story of the life of a priest shows the conflict between an individualist and an institution—a conflict not unlike that between Andrew Mason and the medical profession in "The Citadel." The...

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Katherine Woods

["The Keys of the Kingdom," the] new novel by the author of "The Citadel," is a magnificent story of the great adventure of individual goodness. And yet it is an essential trait of its hero's character that he could not have thought of the word "magnificent" as in any sense applied to his achievements, or the word "great" to his life. He saw himself as a man of puny strivings, and humility was in the very sinew of his saintliness, along with courage and brotherliness and truth. Just so, innately, was Francis Chisholm a man of great adventure. And the novel with a modern saint as hero sharpens a mercilessly perceptive wit in the portrayal of a sinner also, and stabs us to the examination of universal values, in an...

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For his seventh novel in fourteen years Dr. Cronin offers us "The Green Years," a slice of Scotch-Irish autobiography that teems with quiet charm and the special brand of heartache that this painstaking author is so adept at fashioning. The fact that the movies have already paid a record price for the rights should surprise no one: like "The Citadel," which won the critics' prize for that year, and "The Keys of the Kingdom," which is yet to be released, it offers a ready-made scenario for the trials, and the ultimate triumph, of a starved but valiant youth, Dr. Cronin's meticulous hand (which made "The Citadel" a kind of super-blueprint of every young doctor) has taken his own boyhood and made of it a mirror in which...

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Nathan L. Rothman

["The Green Years"] is not one of Dr. Cronin's more effective novels. To get right down to the truth, it is rather a weak and tentative effort, lacking both the assurance and the dramatic outline which are generally characteristic of his work. Some of this lack of tone is certainly the result of design rather than accident, since the story is simply an account of a boy's growth from eight to eighteen. Such a tale would be expected to ramble, to unwind like a kitestring rather than to expand from any dramatic center. Yet even here, in the history of a youth, some position must be taken by the writer other than that of friendly narrator. He may take a youth's view of life, give it to us through eyes drowned in new...

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C. V. Terry

"Shannon's Way" is not billed as a sequel to Dr. Cronin's last novel, "The Green Years." It may be read as an entity in itself, and judged on its own doubtful merits. As a sequel, it seems a pale coda to the first volume—or, should we say, a tenuous suspension-bridge to other episodes in Robie's glum saga? As a self-sufficient account of a young Scotch doctor's struggle to make a name for himself as a researcher, his lonely ragings as he trods his chosen path, and the standard females who console him en route, it is a sketchy scenario indeed—something that Dr. Cronin might have jotted down on odd bits of paper with a blunt pencil, and never endowed with a third dimension….

Since Dr. Cronin...

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Lon Tinkle

["The Spanish Gardener"] is a compact and neat parable whose simple moral is well worth restatement for our times. The sermon, so to speak, in "The Spanish Gardener" is one already familiar to Dr. Cronin's readers: namely, that simple, direct affections and honest acts can be corroded and destroyed by distrust and by too much introspection. Or, put more aphoristically and a little less exactly, to the impure in heart all things are impure.

Dr. Cronin begins his story with a firm discipline, in a tone as dry and detached as Somerset Maugham's. Throughout, "The Spanish Gardener" is in fact as attentively carpentered as any novel by Maugham himself. But the detached mood soon disappears: Dr. Cronin has...

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John Barkham

The Germans have a word for a writer who lets his hair (and standards) down. They call him "unbuttoned." Dr. A.J. Cronin must have been in very unbuttoned mood when he wrote "Beyond This Place" an old-fashioned melodrammer of the kind popular circa Ouida and Marie Corelli. That is not to say it isn't worth propping up in your hammock this summer, or that it won't be a best seller. The answer is yes in both cases. It's just that Dr. Cronin has elected this time to tell a suspenseful tale without regard for people or probabilities.

The book … opens in a British town on a deceptively peaceful note, with Mrs. Burgess, a gray-haired "widow," welcoming her clean-limbed son, Paul, from medical...

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Charles Lee

A. J. Cronin, one of the world's most popular novelists and least competent critics, has this to say about "Beyond This Place," his newest book; "It is probably the most exciting novel I have ever written."… The fact of the matter is that all nine of Dr. Cronin's previous brain-children are better proportioned and more intelligent….

"Beyond This Place" suffers from the major fault of having been "constructed," to use the good doctor's own word, to fit a crusade. It issues from irritation, not from intensity; it is shaped by artifice, not by art. In its grotesque attack on the present system of trial by jury … the book reads like badly diluted Dickens, passionate urgency all but gone and humor...

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John Barkham

Dr. Cronin's novel ["A Thing of Beauty"], his best since "The Citadel" almost twenty years ago, is an object lesson in the power a writer can infuse into a story when he becomes deeply involved in its theme. In his last book, "Beyond This Place," Dr. Cronin was the professional story teller, standing aloof from his characters and spinning his tale with a craftsman's competence but a personal disinterest. In his new book, the story of an English painter persecuted for his art, he writes with a crusading fervor that makes this one of the most moving novels of the year.

Never overtly pleading his cause, Dr. Cronin leaves it to his story to drive home its moral with quiet ferocity. I laid down this...

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Anthony Bailey

Mr. Cronin has a reputation as a "professional novelist" or a "good story-teller" and his latest book [A Thing of Beauty] has the lulling effect those terms imply. I picked it up, remembering that The Citadel had given me, at the age of fourteen, a strong desire to be a doctor and to save humanity. And I thought that intellectual fashions one adopts at a later age had, perhaps, made me unfair to writers of this kind. But I was wrong. This book is a sedative.

It purports to be the story of a great painter's life and it is no compliment to say that Mr. Cronin gets as near to depicting Genius as Henry James did in Roderick Hudson. James' first attempt, however, did have some...

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Peter Girvin

Oddly, "The Northern Light" seems but a skeleton Cronin novel. Obviously this able and experienced writer has observed the problems of a provincial newspaper … so that he knows what occasionally happens to them when somebody wants to acquire them. Furthermore, his characters are credible, even when their creator is most sentimental about them. But the richness of detail, the solidly woven warp and woof of living that have been so typically Cronin in previous novels, are wanting from "The Northern Light." Here is what might be called a dwarf specimen of a species that is typically larger and more luxuriant in habit.

Peter Girvin, "But the Paper Came Out," in The New York...

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The New Yorker

["The Judas Tree" is a] silly book about a very rich, retired Scottish-born doctor and his guilty conscience. The doctor, David Moray,… has established himself in Switzerland, where he lives very well…. The serpent, conscience, slithers into this paradise when a chance word pinches David's memory and reminds him of the Scottish village where, thirty years earlier, he wronged and then abandoned a good young woman. He decides to go back to the village and see whether a little gift of money and a kind word might smooth her feelings, even at this late date, but on arriving in Scotland he finds that his lost love is not elderly and not humble and not sad but dead and buried, and no longer able to satisfy his appetite...

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Joseph Clancy

There are no bad stories; there are only bad novels. Take [The Judas Tree] for example…. Such a story could make a good or a bad novel but in A. J. Cronin's case, it has made a bad one.

The reason is clear. Everything hinges on the characterization of the doctor: he must be subtly and convincingly drawn. Mr. Cronin fails; for instead of action rooted in character, he gives us facets of character invented to fit the action. We are constantly aware not so much of the fact that Dr. Moray is charming, guilt-ridden or self-deceptive as the fact that Mr. Cronin is trying very hard, and by the most obvious means, to convince us that he is.

The publishers warn us that this is a...

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Richard Sullivan

Cronin is a writer of the natural, easy sort. Let us not go in for fantastical comparisons; but he works in the high tradition of Dickens and Scott. He tells a story with such gripping intensity that, reading, you feel glad that this is a book you must stay up until 2 a. m. to finish. In the morning, knowing how things came out, you feel sad that there is not more to read of this enthralling novel.

Dr. Cronin's novels in the past occasionally have been marked by lapses into sentimentality or melodrama. None has been a downright poor novel, but a few have been shaky. "The Green Years" was the best of them, until this one.

"A Song of Sixpence" is a first-person narrative told by a...

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James G. Murray

Given Dr. Cronin's considerable reputation and some fourteen titles on which it is based, [A Song of Sixpence] obviously requires a notice. It does not, however, deserve one. For this is a bad book, not in the sense of being a good book that has failed, but in the sense of being a second-rate book that does not meet the requirements of its lower estate. And the reason for this has something to do with the matters of honesty and sentiment, or—more simply—with honest sentimentality.

The reader is told (on the book jacket, it is true, but in the author's words) that "of all my novels … A Song of Sixpence is to me … the real thing." Further, the author speaks of being "deeply moved"...

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Robert Burns

This curiously old-fashioned novel [A Song of Sixpence] is Doctor Cronin's fourteenth, published 35 years after his first, Hatter's Castle. This record demonstrates that Cronin is a prolific writer who has made few concessions to the ephemeral tastes of literary reviewers. A Song of Sixpence is traditional Cronin as much as The Citadel and Keys of the Kingdom but I must confess that I found it pleasant reading.

Set in his familiar pre-war Scotland, A Song of Sixpence traces the coming to manhood of Laurence Carroll, an unbelievably unspoiled youngster of Dickensian cast. The events of his life, although catastrophic in themselves are not nearly tortuous or...

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Eugene J. Linehan, S. J.

Superior Slovene Vodka, made entirely from rye and green rye malt, is the "Pocketful of Rye" which entitles this little novel of A. J. Cronin. The Vodka is an attempt at escapism on the part of the hero, Laurence Carroll: young physician. He has reread Thompson's famous "Hound of Heaven" and the running proves to be as futile as the hero of Thompson's poetry. Carroll has a conversion of Hollywood proportions in a tiny Swiss Church as he dialogues with the Blessed Sacrament. The twin voices which he imagines is explained by the parish priest as a dialogue with conscience, the Catholic conscience which few ever escape. This turns the physician back to his Scottish home and to real acceptance of obligations. It's a bit...

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Jeremy Brooks

Dr Cronin is not merely not believable [in The Minstrel Boy]: he is committing truthlessness with the unctuous confidence of a money-lender committing robbery. This story of the rise, fall and redemption of a young and beautiful Catholic priest with an exquisite singing voice and a taste for the ladies is sentimentally snobbish about music, religion, food, wine, gardening, travel, sex, money, Ireland, clothes … you name it, Dr Cronin has a snobbery for it.

Jeremy Brooks, "Spine-Chiller," in The Sunday Times, London, May 11, 1975, p. 41.∗

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Patricia Goodfellow

Cronin's easy storytelling art is [in Desmonde] applied to the true story of his lifelong friend Desmonde Fitzgerald. Desmonde is a brilliant singer with a strong other-worldly bent that leads him to the heights and the depths during a checkered career as priest, night-club singer, movie actor, missionary in India, and perennial spiritual quester. Desmonde's downers are generally caused by his uninvited attraction to the opposite sex. Cronin plays himself throughout—a prosperously devout and loyal friend who recounts Desmonde's progress with an odd mix of disapproval and wonder. Cronin's universe is morally black and white, defined by Catholic orthodoxy and the social assumptions of perhaps a half century...

(The entire section is 138 words.)