In the alternative culture that has grown around modern American religion, music stars such as Amy Grant have commanded much attention. Disgusted by the filth that is popular music, teenagers are encouraged by well-meaning parents to listen to Grant instead of, say, Madonna. Likewise, Frank Peretti is seen as a Christian substitute for mega sellers like Stephen King and Anne Rice. Every fad in popular culture seems to have its sanitized equivalent in a kind of Christian alternate universe.
The trouble with all of this is obvious. It does not matter if you take out the dirty words and throw in a few references to Christ: bad music is still bad music; bad books are still bad books. Christianity cannot produce substance when it is obsessed with the transitory.
It was with this in mind that I approached these new mysteries by Sally Wright. Published by Multnomah, a Christian publisher on the West Coast, these are the first in what is planned to be a continuing series. Christian mysteries: as my wife said, “Great, who stole the church collection?” To my pleasant surprise, however, I discovered that Wright has given us intelligent, literate (and literary) adult Christian mysteries that follow in the tradition of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Savers, Flannery O’Connor, and Russell Kirk.
Wright’s hero is Ben Reese, widowed World War II army intelligence veteran who serves as archivist at Alderton University in Ohio. Like most detectives, Reese couples his keen powers of observation with his equally strong deductive abilities. Throw in a dash of being at the right place at the right time, and you have the recipe for a detective series.
But Wright is not so shallow. She crafts a complicated web of murders in both of her mysteries and creates a credible cast of characters. Motives are generally believable, as are Reese’s solutions. Of course formulaic structures are evident in Wright’s novels, but Wright does well within the confines of her genre and proves her mettle as a writer.
In Publish & Perish, Ben Reese receives a mysterious call from a friend, the chairman of Alderton University’s English department. The next day, the friend is found dead in his office, supposedly from a heart attack, but Reese suspects foul play.
As Reese uncovers the mysteries surrounding his friend’s death, Wright gives a grand tour of university politics. From the pathetic spinster French professor to the arrogant and defensive college president, Wright’s characters could be found at any modern university, and each has plausible reasons to have murdered Reese’s friend.
Of the two books, Pride & Predator is the better. Wright clearly draws from such works as Russell Kirk’s The Old House of Fear for inspiration in this gothic novel. Her mysterious island scenes and castle intrigues are indebted to the long line of Scottish literature. Set in Scotland, the book involves the murder of Jonathan MacLean, a parson. None of the characters seems to have a clear motive for the murder. But Wright does well in exposing hidden motives, and soon Reese views everyone as a suspect.
Fortunately, these novels are not bogged down with didacticism. Wright is content to bring out Christian principles through the actions and attitudes of her characters. We find villains motivated by real evil, but it is an evil motivated by real-life temptation and desire. And this is the way that evil should be portrayed in literature. Evil is not always ugly and repulsive, but—all too often—attractive and seductive. While occasional scenes may seem forced, Wright succeeds well in avoiding the preachy and predictable, and—most of all—the trendy. As a good writer should, Wright shows rather than tells.
[Publish & Perish, by Sally S. Wright (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books) 300 pp., $9.99]
[Pride & Predator, by Sally S. Wright (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books) 300 pp., $9.99]