|Rev Dr Olympia Brown was a Professor of Humanities, and chaplain, at Meriwether College, a small women's college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where, when we first meet her, she had been for over 25 years. Aged 52, she saw herself as "a relatively nice-looking, middle-aged lady" although she "was rounder in the chin and tummy than she would have preferred. Her practical, wash-and-wear hairstyle framed a fair-skinned, freckled face that pleasantly reflected her Swedish-Irish-English heritage." She wore "oversized glasses" but her "casual dress and easy manner belied a sharp intelligence and a ready wit", even if she had a weakness for feeble puns. She is a determined vegetarian.
At the age of 17 she had had an illegitimate daughter whom she had had to give up for adoption and was always hoping to find again. She reckons this is why she will "always keep trying to rescue lost kids". She had subsequently married, had had two sons, both now away at college, and been divorced. She had recently met a caring and amusing Englishman, Frederick. The only problem about him was that he was in England. She lived in an antique farmhouse that happened to be haunted.
In many ways she sounds remarkably similar to the author who was also an ordained Unitarian Universalist (an ever-questioning denomination about which we are told nothing but, as I understand it, has no creed or need of belief in a personal God), taught at Cambridge, had two sons, got divorced, and fell in love with an Englishman ....
Rev Dr Judith (Judy) Campbell (1940 - ) is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and author of several books and articles. In addition to the Olympia Brown Mysteries (some of which are reviewed below), she has also published children's stories, poetry, and essays on the arts and religion, and on spirituality and creativity. She says that she sees her series of Olympia Brown novels as part of her ministry.
She holds a PhD in The Arts and Religious Studies from Harvard Divinity School as well as being a Master of Arts in Fine Arts, and became a professor teaching art at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she worked for 27 years. She then became a minister for the Unitarian Society Church in Martha's Vineyard for 7 years before resigning in 2008, although she continued working as a community minister.
She has presented writing workshops and 'Writing as Spiritual Practice" workshops both nationally and internationally. When she isn't traveling and teaching, she divides her time between the island of Martha's Vineyard, and Plymouth, Massachusetts. She lives with her (third) husband, and "best friend", Chris Stokes, who refers to himself as a 'Professional Englishman'. She has two adult sons and grandchildren. She refers to herself as "The Sinister Minister".
A Deadly Mission (2010)
A Deadly Mission describes how a Cambridge college chaplain, Olympia Brown, discovers that Bethany Ruth McAllister, a homesick freshman, an innocent country girl from Bible-belt Oklahoma, is being recruited by a shadowy religious cult, the "Boston Christian Common Fellowship Spiritual Life and Renewal Center." Bethany is quite prepared to give up all to join them: "If I do everything right, they'll let me enter the First Circle right after Christmas. We don't do gifts or trees or anything. That's pagan devil worship. We'll honour the birth and life of Jeshua, that's what we call Jesus, by attending His beloved poor." Olympia is horrified by the way that Bethany has been persuaded to abandon her family, so she and her Roman Catholic friend and colleague, gay Father Jim Sawicki, join forces to try to rescue the girl before she loses her own family, what little money she had, and goodness knows what else.
When Olympia hears that another student with connections to that same group, has died in a suspicious drowning accident, Olympia persuades her son, Malcolm, to investigate a rock concert and Praise Rally run by the cult. But his identity is discovered and Olympia has to face up to "threatening phone calls and a teabag laced with ipepac and a homesick kids from Oklahoma tangled up with a religious cult and a house-ghost with an attitude." But luckily Ruth finds a friend amongst the cult members who is also determined to help her.
Not all the characters (such as the ultra evil cult leader with his excess of "wives" and poisoned tea bags who had another life as "a high-flying millionaire investor and entrepreneur") are entirely convincing, nor are the occasional manifestations of Olympia's house-ghost, the spectral Miss Winslow, who had begun a diary in 1859 which is found by Olympia - and from which brief excerpts appear for little apparent reason at the start of some of the chapters. It seems odd too that it is not until you get to more than 90% through the book that Olympia gets round to involving the police. "Why did you wait so long, Professor Brown?" The Boston police detective asked her.
"I wanted to come weeks ago, she said, "but who would have believed me? Would you have bothered to listen to me before?" It is not really a good enough explanation.
Olympia sounds remarkably like her author, just as her boy friend, the Englishman Frederick, sounds like the author's husband. But you don't often hear expressions like "Jolly good" in England nowadays, and "hogminey" should be Hogmanay and is a Scottish not an English celebration! But the story itself is not without interest and the autobiographical elements in it (such as Olivia's increasing love for Frederick) help to hold the attention.
An Unspeakable Mission (2011)
An Unspeakable Mission is again set in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When a vicious alcoholic (from a secretive Irish Catholic family) dies in a suspicious fire, Universalist Unitarian minister and college chaplain Rev. Olympia Brown, helped by her friend the gay Roman Catholic priest Fr. Jim Sawicki, set out to prove his death was an accident and not the result of murder by the abused wife or raped daughter, Bridget - although the evidence suggests otherwise. Olympia's previous discovery of a safe refuge for the wife and daughter did not come in time to prevent the daughter from trying to end her own life. But Olympia, fortified by the thought that her English boy friend, Frederick, was soon to visit her and join her in bed, ensures that all ends as well as it could.
It is a slow moving and not all that interesting a story, sometimes rather clumsily told, as when Father Jim greets an old friend and tortuously explains to him, "Key, Jerry, how's it going? I know I'm a priest and you're a Detective Sergeant, but we grew up together in the West End before they tore it all down so you can drop the Father stuff, okay?" There are also occasional misprints in the kindle edition.
The story reveals very little about Olympia's own faith or lack of it (the one thing she does believe in is the ghost of a long-dead woman who switches lights on and off in an attempt to communicate with her, and parts of whose journal, written in 1860, are again oddly included in this book), although her concern for others does shine through, even if she sometimes thinks it best to conceal the truth from them, as when she does not let the troubled Bridget know where her mother has found refuge.
Towards the end, Olympia tells Father Jim, "I've had it with academia. Teaching humanities and religion has been wonderful, and so has being the chaplain there, but I'm an ordained minister. I think it's time I paid more attention to the ministry part of my calling." It'll be interesting to see how this works out in later books, especially if she gets round to explaining what, if anything, you have to believe to be a Unitarian Universalist minister. In any event, she could not be less inspirational than Father Jim when he rejoices that the dead bully had died unshriven which means, he tells Olympia, "According to Catholic dogma, he'll get his just desserts, and it won't be pretty, and it will be for all eternity." At this, we told, "Olympia made no effort to hide her delight." It doesn't say much for either of them.
A Despicable Mission (2012)
A Despicable Mission is set on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Olympia Brown is the summer minister, and she suspects that an elderly parishioner is the target of a nasty confidence operation to trick her out of her house. Much to the consternation of her colleague, Father Jim (who turns out to have AIDS) and Frederick, her live-in English gentleman lover (who says things like "Jolly good", and gets so excited at the thought of her that he has to rush off to have a cold shower), Olympia puts her own life in danger when, determined to help the confused old lady safeguard her property, she starts looking into the dodgy business affairs of the pushy William Bateson.
There is also a sub-plot in which Olympia meets up with her 35-year-old daughter Laura, whom she had been forced to hand over for adoption when she had been only 17 and had not seen since. Their reunion is realistically and sensitively handled.
The new setting (which the author knows very well as it is where she lives) adds to the interest, as when Olympia wonders whether "this outwardly friendly group of people" was " in reality a tightly closed, clannish society that would take generations to include a newcomer?" There are some colorful characters, but otherwise it is very much as before, complete with rather tedious quotes from Miss Winslow's diary of c.1860 (a lady whose presence she feels from time to time. It is the one mystical event she ever experiences.)
There is still no explanation of what it really means to be a Unitarian Universalist minister, although it is explained that she does sometimes have to find time to write her sermons. When she couldn't think of a subject, she managed to find a Bible ("While OIympia would never consider herself a biblical scholar, she had, in fact, read it in its entirety and had always loved its enduring message and the sound of elegant poetic language."). She then opened it at random to select a text to inspire her: "Woe onto them that call evil good and good evil ...." But what she made of this in her sermon we are not told. Meanwhile she still seems happy to say things like, "Shut up, you slime bag." The author realises how incongruous this is, as she follows the sentence with "said the Reverend Olympia Brown". There are other examples of this sort of quiet humor which are very welcome.
At first there is more talk than action, but when Olympia finds herself facing a man with a gun, things get more dramatic, and we are told that "she realized this was not a low budget suspense thriller but the real thing." She is told by her attacker, "It's possible you might have made a better detective than a minister, but I fear it's too late for that now. Would anyone like a glass of water?" It's not exactly a convincing situation.
A Predatory Mission (2013)
A Predatory Mission describes how, when the minister and a young mother, both members of the same Unitarian Universalist church, disappear without warning, the Reverend Doctor Olympia Brown is called in as "kind of an interim-consultant" to sort things out. The disappearances are certainly intriguing and, being a "regular little Sherlock", she soon suspects a connection between the missing woman and charismatic Pastor Markham ("a tall, dark eyed, rugged and very good-looking man of indeterminate middle age") from the church across the street. With investigative assistance from her best friend, Father Jim (diagnosed as HIV positive and on "personal administrative leave" so no longer working as a Roman Catholic priest), and support from her beloved Frederick, Olympia discovers Markham's long and well-concealed history of sexual misconduct. When he sets his sights on Olympia, she knows the only way to stop this insidious predator is to catch him in the act, which means involving herself in the action.
This has a stronger plot than usual and, for once, we learn something about Unitarian Universalist beliefs. For a start, the author expresses "profound gratitude to the Creative Source of Being which calls and challenges me daily." Olympia has no problem conducting same-sex marriages "as I believe it's that you love, not how or whom you love" that matters. She does not take the Bible literally, believing that "there is always something new to learn, another mystery to be explored and a new truth to be revealed. I see religion as a living thing, growing and evolving as we do .... I prefer questions to answers." For her, "there are many religions. One is not by nature better than another. We are what we are, and we do what works best for us." It comes as no surprise that she preached "a rather abstract sermon on faith versus belief." Ministry for her was essentially "not about the flowing robes and expounding platitudes from the pulpit. Ministry was listening and being present to another human being" - something she was certainly good at. But, when a streak of lightening just misses her house, she does whisper, "Thank you, Jesus."
On the other hand, there is the usual clumsiness in using conversation to give the reader background information regardless of the fact that it must be already known to the person being told, as when one police officer tells another, "It's a disappearance, Steve. Unless there's a dead body or a suicide note or a paper trail to some romantic hideaway on a tropical island, it's hard to know exactly where to start looking or to know what we're looking for ... This is the narrative of the interview I did with the husband ..." and he reads it all out aloud, presumably for our benefit.
And we are again subject to the increasingly tiresome diary entries made by Miss Wilmslow a century before in which she had recorded "the deeper secrets of my heart". Whenever she needed advice, Olympia "often read and re-read these words, written long ago by a woman who had hopes and fears not unlike her own." We are told that her words "often offered insight to Olympia's present day life" but their relevance is never made very clear, however much Miss W tries to attract her attention by making her mantel clock strike twice!
As this is a cozy sort of story, we are told about what Olympia cooked and that she "was attired in what was now called business casual. She'd chosen a beige and coral flowered jacket, coral blouse and beige linen slacks. Linen was supposed to look slightly wrinkled and Olympia was forever pushing its limits. She was not a grey flannel pinstripe suit kind of minister." And we hear about her daughter Laura's problems and how OIympia goes out of her way to reconcile two bitterly rival rose-growing church-decorating ladies: "Part of the unspoken job of ministry was to look for and commend those human accomplishments, and woe betide the thoughtless callow cleric who did not. Olympia knew the rules. She would find a way to have both ladies' roses praised and displayed, come hell or high water."
Frederick still says unlikely things like "Jolly good", deliberately "exaggerating his pound-note Englishness", but it makes him seem unreal - even if he was based on the author's husband. However, some of the author's humor is much more effective, as when Frederick suggests, "I think we should go in and start practicing."
"What married people do," he said with a knowing leer.
"The dishes?" she said innocently.
And I enjoyed the lettering on her tee-shirt: "Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society".
It even gets quite exciting when she confronts the rapist (who tells her, "I'm going to .... take off your clothes and screw your brains out. Won't that be nice?"), although, even while her blouse is being unbuttoned, you know perfectly well that she is bound to get rescued before anything too dreadful happens.
An Improper English Mission (2014)
An Improper English Mission is dedicated "to all those beloved and respected animals who bless and grace our lives and who share our precious Mother Earth planet". How cozy can you get?
The story tells how Olympia Brown is (surprisingly) invited to be on the teaching staff of a church leadership development conference in West Yorkshire in England, but her real task is to see if she can discover why someone is trying to make the life of Managing Director Celia Attison so miserable. So off she goes, complete with her now-married-six-months husband Frederick (who goes on saying things like "Crikey" and "Blimey").
She soon uncovers a despicable plan to destroy The Moorlands conference center through embezzlement and tainted food but not before she herself falls victim (as usual) to a potential killer's twisted plot. With Father Jim (who had left the Roman Catholic church and was now training to become an Episcopalian priest in the States) not there to help her, her husband struggles (unsuccessfully, of course) to keep her out of trouble and, as usual, long dead Miss Wilmslow tries to warn her of dangers via her old clock (that Olympia had slipped into her cabin luggage!). Unfortunately Miss W's diary entries get longer than before. "It's amazing," Olympia tells her husband, "how her life of a hundred and sixty years ago has so many parallels to my own." But they aren't very obvious.
However, the English background is quite well handled (although I've never before heard the expression "bedroom communities", English people happily say either "nine-thirty" or "half-nine" and not everyone spends so much time eating tea and biscuits). The center's resident husband and wife, who act as rather simple-minded head caretaker and scheming chief bookkeeper at The Moorlands, make interesting suspects, although it seems a bit unreasonable for the bookkeeper to set the place on fire while Celia is locked in the attic.
The story-telling is quite clumsy at times as when the bookkeeper keeps telling her husband things he must have already known (such as the way that Celia had been appointed as Managing Director), and Olympia says (or at least thinks) things like, "Oh joy, oh rapture." Oh dear! Even Celia's speech to her staff in which she tells them, "It's business as usual, but I can say we are British, and somehow we will muddle through it all together", does not sound too likely.
It is not a very plausible plot, particularly when the arch villain suddenly confesses all and becomes a reformed character: "You're not going to believe this," the plotter says and goes on to explain how the arrival of her noisy cat had brought her to her senses! No, not every reader will believe it. But never mind, there's what promises to be a good sticky toffee pudding recipe at the end of the book - and Olympia is going to use it for her Christmas dinner back in California - so all's well with the world.
I shall not be reviewing the other books in the series, but they are:
An Unholy Mission (2012)
A Singular Mission (2014).
The author has her own website and there is an interesting if over-lengthy audio interview with her on the WGBH site.
Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!
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