The Rector: A Christian Murder Mystery, by Michael Hicks Thompson
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Bostick Communications in exchange for an honest review. Spoiler alert, obviously, because this is a review of a mystery novel.]
As someone who is very fond of genre literature in general and Christian mystery novels in particular , this book was a very worthwhile one to get. I was a bit puzzled by the fact that the book came with an apron, because the author said that Martha (the investigator at the heart of this symbolic novel) wore the apron while cooking and trying to solve the crimes of the gossipy small town of Solo, which sits at an important crossroads shown in Northern Mississippi. The author considers this to be a work of serious Christian literature, and I am inclined to agree with him. Fortunately, serious in this case does not mean too serious or weighty to be enjoyed, for this is a ripping good story. It is serious in the sense that anyone reading it, if they are not familiar with the Bible, especially the attributes of Satan discussed in the New Testamenet, or C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, or the general gist of the Gospel stories and their timing, will find a lot of the reading difficult to understand. Those who are familiar with these things will see this novel as the sort of serious-minded Christian fiction that C.S. Lewis and others are fond of writing, which do not see writing about Christian faith and doctrine as any excuse not to write sparkling prose with strong characters.
Without revealing too much, I hope, of the fantastic mystery to be found in this novel, there is complexity at the heart of this novel. Specifically, there are four rectors for the small Episcopalian church in Solo, Mississippi, where the novel’s action mostly takes place, aside from some courtroom drama and other action in neighboring small towns in the same general area. Given the shortage of Episcopalian priests, the fact that a single town was looking for its fourth when three of them had come to untimely ends within the short period of a few years would be a subject of considerable alarm. The town of Solo is small, only a few hundred people, which makes the large number of per capita murders and suicides a very painful matter. Of course, mystery novels do tend to amp up the level of death to alarmingly high levels to make for compelling plot action, never mind the implications on demographics. The action blends vivid and colorful characters, sparkling dialogue, and thoughtful reflection on matters of faith, of sin and redemption, of justice and vengeance in a format that makes the reader look forward to reading more about Martha’s adventures with her gossipy neighbors, the long-suffering sheriff, and the alarmingly large number of widows and divorcees around town.
At slightly more than 300 pages, this is a novel that reads relatively easily but leaves plenty of material to think and reflect upon. If we were presented with a Satanic minister who had mimicked the right liturgy in our denominational book, would we be able to tell? The Satanic false minister here is an adulterer, a murderer, greedy for money, preaching the prosperity gospel and a rapist to boot. But he is far from the only sinner to be found. There are other murderers here, a poisoner, a man who tries to cover his impotence with fierce wrath, a remorseful former prostitute who ends up with an unwanted pregnancy, and is divorced in her grief and shame and guilt, but who seeks to make the best of it, and a witty part-time writer and full-time keeper of a boarding house who is not perfect but is witty and decent, and a lot of other people, vivid characters that show one cannot judge a book by the cover, or judge a town simply for being full of eccentrics. When one reads a book that on any given page can be showing a beloved rector giving a message on C.S. Lewis’ argument that a good man knows how bad he is, but a bad man thinks he is pretty good, and on another page read about a lonely woman asking why she can’t have a man in her life and having a crush on every single male rector that passes through the town, one knows very quickly if this is the sort of broad and thoughtful fiction that one likes. Fortunately, I do. I suspect many others will as well, and it’s no mystery why: this is a well-crafted novel that is worthy of reading, and in spreading the word of this mystery writer to those who are not yet in the know, but soon will be.
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