Michael Hicks Thompson. The Rector: A Christian Murder Mystery. Memphis: Shepherd King Publishing, 2015. See here to buy the book.
The Rector is set in 1950’s Mississippi. David Baddour, the pastor of an Episcopalian church in the small town of Solo, has died at the young age of thirty-two. Martha McRae, who owns a boarding house and a newspaper, suspects that he was murdered. The church gets a new rector, Thomas Bain, but there are indications that he is not as he seems.
The book is competently written. It has its share of likable characters. Martha is humble and level-headed. Her friend Oneeda becomes infatuated too easily, but is a cheerful person. Mary is trying to move on from her past and to be a good Christian. Freddie works at the post office and is the town drunk. John “JJ” Johnson makes honey and is a big wooly man; he is devout and donates ten percent of his income to the Episcopalian church.
The Amazon note about the book says: “Set in the 1950s, the key figures are Martha, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Satan, and Jesus.” The Christian allegory in this book is not as overbearing as, say, the Christian allegory in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But it is still there. I was wondering who the John the Baptist character was in the book, then it dawned on me: honey, wooley man, JJ! That, by the way, accounts for a scene in the book that I initially thought was unnecessary and gratuitous.
Occasionally, the book has theological discussions. They mainly revolve around the problem of evil. One of the rectors tries to explain the existence of evil by talking about how God gives people free will, but he also says that God needs to enable a person to come to God if that person is to believe. That seems like a mixture of Calvinism with a belief in libertarian free-will. Maybe that is contradictory, or maybe the author believes that the two concepts can fit together, somehow.
One of the themes in the book reminds me of a theme in that awful 2005 miniseries, Revelations: a Satanic sort of person is in jail, inciting prisoners and orchestrating disaster and mayhem in the outside world. Come to think of it, didn’t Andre Linoge do some of that in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century? There is also that Twilight Zone episode in which Satan is in jail. I guess it’s a motif.
Comparing and contrasting the teachings of the Satanic sort of character with those of the good rector would make for an interesting discussion. One preached prosperity and God giving people what they want; the other preached justification by grace through faith alone. Both did their share of good for the community, in their own way, but the Satanic character obviously produced bad fruit, in the end.
The first two thirds of the book were really good, perhaps because I was enjoying the characters and wondering how mysteries would be resolved. The resolution to the mystery was a bit “meh” to me. It reminded me of a Matlock or Perry Mason episode, only the way of arriving at the truth did not strike me as that much of a slam-dunk. I also thought that the book was hastily trying to tie one of the characters to Jesus in the end. That in itself raises questions: Was that character Jesus? Can Jesus come back and die again? And, on a related note, was the Satan character really Satan? He had his own human history, so there are arguments for the “no” answer.
I did like this book, and I am open to reading the book’s sequel when it comes out.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.