Mother Lavinia Grey (known to her congregation and friends as Mother Vinny) is the creation of Kate Galloway (1939- ) who lives in Lambertville, New Jersey and worked in computing before taking up full-time writing in 1994. Mother Grey is the vicar at St Bede's Episcopal Church (a "little mission church"), but she seems too busy helping people out to spend much time there! She appears in five books:
Grave Misgivings (1998)
Grave Misgivings was the first of the books that I read but the last she wrote, and I must say I would have welcomed a bit more information about Mother Grey herself. As it is, you are left to pick up clues: she is almost 40, had a husband who had died and an ex sweetheart with the unlikely name of Detective Dave Dogg, and lives in Fishersville, New Jersey ("She was still a newcomer in Fishersville, there a mere seven years"). The church itself gets no more than passing references: "Tomorrow was Sunday, but everything at St Bede's had been prepared, and she could always wing the homily; it wouldn't be the first time or the last". One of the few specific religious references is: "The tank was half full, which should be plenty, in as much as Mother Grey was praying for a revelation from the Holy Spirit, the force that upheld and sustained her in times of stress and also sometimes gave her handy tips .... but just in case the house took longer to find than Mother Grey was expecting, they stopped and filled the tank". There is a quiet humor here and elsewhere: "Don't cry," she tells her companion after they have been bound and left in a freezer, following a fight in which she herself, although slight of build, didn't hesitate to join in. "This sort of thing happens to all my sidekicks. We always get out of it". I enjoyed all this but felt that, for the most part, Mother Grey could just as well have been Mrs Grey or any other local character - except that she did specifically see herself as a "protector of strays" which is what gets the action going. But the story itself, about a man and his daughter searching out the past, is well told and interesting, if improbable, and I enjoyed reading it.
Bury the Bishop (1995)
I'd have been much better starting with the first book, Bury the Bishop, as in it everything is clearly explained. St Bede's is a down-and-out parish into which the new arrival, 35-year-old newly ordained Mother Grey, is determined to breathe new life. "That so few of the people .... were communicants in the Episcopal Church was by no means a sign to Mother Grey that the church had no mission there. Need was everywhere." She comes across as a real person, and not without human failings: she "lived an ascetic life ordinarily, by choice she hoped, but perhaps it was through laziness". When her local bishop (who'd wanted to close down her church) gets murdered at the annual diocesan convention, she herself becomes a suspect. In fact, when she attends the Bishop's funeral and the attending clergy offer each other the sign of peace: "The priest on her right, instead of saying, 'Peace be with you,' took her two hands in his moist palms, gazed at her with eyes like those of a distempered cocker spaniel, and murmured, 'God will forgive you, Mother'. After that Mother Grey had to spend almost her entire energy fighting down the urge to run screaming from the cathedral." Kate Gallison is at her best when describing the religious in-fighting and the idiosyncratic characters who live in the little town. In fact, it almost seems a pity that there has to be a murder at all, for then the book does rather descend into melodrama. But her sense of humor makes it all an easy read that I would particularly recommend to anyone interested, as I was, in the ecclesiastical setting.
The Devil's Workshop (1996)
I enjoyed The Devil's Workshop too. In this Mother Grey has been at St Bede's for three years and is still broke. St Bede's "was still hers by the grace of God and the skin of her teeth". Since her arrival as vicar, her congregation had quadrupled ("not difficult; she had started with five people") - but it's still her caring activities that keep her really busy. "Since you went home yesterday morning ," she tells a friend, "we've had an attempted rape, a burglary at the church, and now a murder. And I think Dave is going to dump me and return to his ex-wife. Somehow in the confusion I completely forgot about the rising tide of Satanism. But thanks for the book". Yet despite all the (rather unlikely) Satanic and other nefarious activities that surround her, she obviously loves her little community (as you suspect the author loves hers), and she comes across again as a real, if unsure, human being: " 'We can't predict everything,' said Mother Grey. 'Sometimes you just do the best you can and leave it in God's hands.' She heard herself mouthing these platitides and was mildly revolted. How inadequate I feel to this calling sometimes. What do you say to comfort a murderer? They hadn't taught her that at seminary, and it didn't come naturally".
Hasty Retreat (1996)
In Hasty Retreat, Mother Grey takes part in a Lenten retreat in a monastery. Once again the setting is interesting: " 'You wonder about the past life of monks,' said Mother Grey. What would prompt a man to leave a good career and come here? Oh yes, the love of God certainly, but still, to withdraw completely from the world ...". She herself remains refreshingly acerbic ("No more New Christian praise songs'" she pleaded, describing them as "mind-rotting trash". And she describes her arch-enemy Father Robert Bingley, who wants to close down her church, as "an unregenerate blister"). However the murderous plot that develops (an 85 year old monk is stabbed with a knitting needle) is not really too convincing, she and her collaborator eventually getting swept away down a mountain stream, gagged and cramped together in a coffin! As she herself says at one point: "How corny." Yet the far from holier-than-thou character of Mother Grey shines through, as does the author's persistent sense of humor.
Unholy Angels (1996)
In Unholy Angels, she gets involved with more shootings, Little League baseball and a deranged young teenager. "So many lives to meddle in, so little time", she thinks. But it is her personality and that of the people she helps ("We look out for each other here," she explains. "That's what makes small-town life work.") that provide the real interest. When she says in a TV interview, "If you don't need a gun - and who does need a gun? - get rid of it", people actually start handing them in to her church - all but for one old man, Horace, who was determined to commit suicide. But for reasons too complicated to go into here, his gun was only loaded with soap. His daughter finds him still alive: ""I think I'm going to need counselling," she says. "Mother Grey put her arm around her. "Come see me in my office at two," she said. "Thought I was dead," said Horace.... "Not dead. Damn." With characters like these, there's plenty to interest and amuse.
Kate Gallison has her own website at http://www.kategallison.com where you can also read about the other novels she has written, featuring private investigator Nick Magaracz.
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