|Father Luis Chavez is based at the church of St Augustine, Los Angeles, which was his first appointment after spending five years at the St Robert Bellarmine Seminary in upstate New York.
It had been 14 years since, as a juvenile delinquent, he had taken part in a raid on a convenience store and ended up in the juvenile wing of the local prison where he had refused to give away any information about the gang with which he had been involved. His brother Nicholas, who had had a calling to be a priest, warned him, "It's not about letting these people enjoy life, it's about letting them into your head. Once you hear their voices when you're about to make a decision instead of your own or, even better, God's, you're not living for yourself any more. You're living for them. You might as well be living for the devil."
These words "would be burned into his mind the rest of his life." So, after his brother had been killed, caught in the crossfire of a drug-related shooting, he had decided that he too wanted to be a priest, convinced that "the church's teachings can help people in their everyday lives." However, this does not stop him still indulging in the rough stuff when necessary.
Mark (Gordon) Wheaton (1975 - ) was born in Dallas, Texas. He studied at the University of Texas at Austin (B.A. in English) and Indiana University (M.F.A. in Playwriting). He began by writing for film magazines then went on to become a screenwriter as well as writing horror comics and video games. His first crime novel (Fields of Wrath, reviewed below) led to commissions for two further Luis Chavez books. He is married and lives in Los Angeles.
Fields of Wrath (2016)
Fields of Wrath describes how Father Luis Chavez had returned to the mean streets of his youth in Los Angeles, hoping to put his juvenile criminal past behind him. Although it is only six months after his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest, the brutal murder of a worker in Ventura County's vast farm fields compels him to return to a criminal childhood friend in order to unravel a massive conspiracy. Also teaming up with Michael Story, an ambitious Los Angeles deputy DA, Chavez goes undercover as a farm laborer to bring down an immense human-trafficking ring tied to one of California's most prominent and powerful families.
At first the story (which had started as a comic book pitch) jumps around too much, and is not only very complex but quite confusing. There are a multitude of characters and it is not always easy to remember who they all are - but it gets much easier to follow and is more interesting and even exciting when Chavez disguises himself as a Mexican virtual slave labourer and faces up to daily struggles in the fields.
There are some interesting characters, including the criminally inclined 14-year-old computer whiz kid Miguel, but the main weakness of the book is the unconvincing character of Father Chavez. We are told that he looks for "evidence of the hand of God" and that "nothing filled a priest with greater self-doubt than wondering if he allowed God to operate through him, in his pride, he has substituted his own will," but, with his happy acceptance of violence when he finds it necessary, and his almost total autonomy, he makes a most unlikely priest whose real motives and religious experiences are never adequately explained. Although he keeps thanking God for His practical help, on one occasion when a friend of his was killed, he reverted to being "the man he'd once been. He wanted to kill someone." In fact, he does shoot four criminals, before taking the hand of a dying crook (whom he has just shot) and praying: "O Lord Jesus Christ, most merciful Lord of Earth, we ask that you receive this man into your arms, " and inviting him to confess his sins!
There is some illegible double printed text on page 78 of the Kindle edition.
City of Strangers (2016)
City of Strangers describes how, when Father Chang is brutally gunned down in front of St. Jerome's Chinese-American Catholic Church in Los Angeles, Father Luis Chavez is asked by the archdiocese to lead an inquiry. With the confessed killer already in custody, it looks like an open-and-shut case until Luis digs deeper.
It soon transpires that "it wasn't a question of who wanted Father Chang dead but who didn't". Luis teams up with Deputy District Attorney Michael Story to discover a conspiracy leading back to a triad, one of the world's oldest criminal organizations. But just as the team is about to break the case, a mysterious virus sweeps through Los Angeles, sending the city into a spiral of panic. This is SARS (which I had to look up to discover stood for severe acute respiratory syndrome) which could be "capable of wiping out every human being in Southern California." It is Luis who finally succeeds in tracking down the source of contamination.
As before, there are lots of interesting characters ranging from Dr "Susan" Auyong who worked in an unlicensed medical clinic catering for illegal immigrants, where Father Chang had occasionally brought his parishioners and paid for them, to small-time gangster Oscar de Icaza and his lover Helen who happens to be Michael Story"s wife, as well as the potentially sinister character Tony Qi who had worked his way up through the triad hierarchy (there is a fascinating description of a triad initiation ceremony, with a drop of blood being collected from each initiate, and a freshly killed rooster's blood being added to the mix).
Then there is Luis himself who still manages to get involved in fights and has to be reminded by his ill and dying superior, pastor Father Whillans, that "the Lord has called you to the priesthood, not to the rank of detective. What's important is that you allowed him to guide you in this case, and justice may be served." Luis makes a more convincing priest than before, as when he needs to pray to get "the cleansing feeling of being in the Lord's presence." His teaching too sounds interesting and very much to the point as when he asked his students, "Is Christianity based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? Or the interpretation and expansion on those by Paul the Apostle?" As he tells Michael Story, "I believe the way we strengthen our beliefs is by allowing them to be rigorously challenged from all sides at all times."
This is a story full of complex characters and challenging situations that is not afraid to raise awkward questions, as when, at their last meeting, Luis confesses to Father Whellans that, "In our vocation we're hardly unaccustomed to feeling an invisible hand behind the workings of things. I'm feeling one here, but it's not God's." He could not understand why a loving God should allow so much pain and suffering in his creation.
"Yet still there is great beauty, kindness, fellowship, and love in this world. That is is his doing just as much of the pain" whispers the old priest who is suffering a painful death from cancer,"My body is on fire. I have the smallest window into the torment of the Nazarene. Forget not that God loved his son more than any others, yet still he stayed own hand and made his child to suffer to benefit mankind."
The author has his own (minimal) website and there is an interview with him talking about Days of Wrath on the Land of Books website.
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