Monday, October 11, 2010

Crime Fiction: The Body and the Blood
by Michael Lister

Florida writer Michael Lister returns in his new novel to the life of troubled prison chaplain John Jordan. When we encounter Jordan in The Body and the Blood (Five Star), he has been clean and sober for some time and is even reconciling with his estranged wife, Susan. That’s a good thing, since Susan’s father, Tom Daniels, is a senior official at the Potter Correctional Institution, where Jordan works.

This story begins with the sister of inmate and artist Justin Menge paying him a visit for the first time in four years. Menge was accused of molesting the grandchildren of a powerful sheriff, Mike Hawkins, in neighboring Pine County. But Menge’s sister now believes he’s innocent, and she may have the evidence to prove it. Furthermore, Chaplain Jordan learns that his erstwhile father-in-law is more than happy to help her. It seems Menge has agreed to testify against the man who raped Daniels’ wife, Susan’s mother.

What brings Jordan and Daniels -- previously adversaries in this series -- together is a flyer announcing that a murder will take place during a Mass in Potter’s Protective Management wing. PM, as Protective Management is known, is where inmates are put when they don’t want to play the gang-like games of the general population in a maximum-security prison. Menge, being a convicted molester, is among the PM residents. Another is Juan Martinez, who seems to have gotten away with savaging Mrs. Daniels after a bank robbery gone wrong. Unfortunately, the authorities haven’t been able to prove Martinez’s guilt, because Daniels’ wife -- horrified and sickened by the attack -- destroyed all of the evidence in order to cleanse herself.

Not long after Jordan finds the threatening flyer, Justin Menge is slain. This despite the fact that Jordan, Daniels, two guards and several inmates were all able to see down Menge’s corridor, and witnessed nothing of the violence.

There are plenty of suspects in the murder. Martinez is one, as the dead man had threatened to testify against him. But then there’s Menge’s lover, Chris Sobel, himself a killer, who liked the idea of leaving prison with an artist such as Menge to start over. His proximity to Menge at the time of the murder makes a lover’s spat seem likely. Outside the prison, members of the Hawkins family would have liked nothing better than to see Menge pay dearly for mistreating their young Pine County relatives. And Sheriff Hawkins’ son is doing time in the penitentiary -- a son who is a bit too racist and homophobic even by Pine County standards. (Sort of like Huck Finn’s dad was too much of a bigot even for the Antebellum South. Scary, eh?)

The PM guards wouldn’t give even mall cops any reason to worry about their jobs. So it falls to Jordan and Daniels to investigate this crime, at the same time as Jordan attempts to reunite with Susan. Susan helps things along by announcing she’s pregnant. What hinders their reconciliation, though, is her insistence that Jordan leave Potter County for Atlanta, Georgia, where she runs a successful public relations firm. Coloring both the investigation and their marriage is the severe denial and trauma suffered by Susan’s mother.

In Chaplain Jordan, Lister paints a vivid portrait of a man who has conquered his addiction, but still has to face the causes of it. The protagonist’s temper occasionally flairs, and at one point, he slugs an inmate. It the same raw nerves that once drove Jordan to drink that now threaten to undo all the progress he’s made.

Jordan, by the way, isn’t your conventional clergyman. Not only does he refer to God as “She,” even in conversations with the prison’s part-time Catholic priest, but his father is the Potter County sheriff, and Jordan himself is a former deputy. So his investigation of Menge’s death isn’t the work of an amateur sleuth blundering haplessly into a crime. Daniels wants his son-in-law along ostensibly because Jordan is still, at heart, a cop, yet the inmates have come to trust him.

Lister puts a lot of coincidences into The Body and the Blood that could have derailed it in the hands of a lesser author. Fortunately, Lister handles them well. The story is not as edgy as his most recent Tyrus Books offering, Thunder Beach (2010). Instead, it’s comfortable, like an entry in a series that’s been around awhile and is more interested in keeping its fans than grabbing new ones. Still, Lister is one of the better writers working today. He doesn’t skimp on story development or the consequences of actions. Regular characters change and fall apart. And where this tale is at its best is in Jordan’s interactions with prison inmates. Some profess a disappointment when the chaplain tells them he’s not superior to them, that he struggles to be a better person every day in just the same way they do. What really disappoints them, though, and what the author portrays best, is how Jordan fails as often as he succeeds.

Fortunately for us, in this book, Lister succeeds. ◊

Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and occasional comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s a regular contributor to Crimespree and an occasional contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show.

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