Father Jarvis Hedlam

(creator: Allen Whitman)


Allen Whitman
Father Jarvis Hedlam is a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada. We are told little about his appearance except that, like his dog, he is "shaggy black with grey hairs". He is a man of faith and a conscientious hard-working priest, who is described as an "old Sherlock Holmes", and proves to be determined investigator.

The Rev Dr Allen Whitman (1925 - ) graduated in Law from the University of Minnesota in 1948 and in Theology from the University of Chicago in 1952. In 1965, he received a Master in Sacred Theology degree from Northwestern Lutheran Seminary and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by Nashotah House Seminary in 1973. He went on to serve parishes in Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas. He also served as Rector Emeritus at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity in Midland, until he retired in 1992. He is the author of five books, as well as the two detective novels reviewed below. He has conducted studies and seminars on spiritual healing, on the meaning of dreams, and various literary studies of classics such as the Dorthy Sayers mysteries, Dante, John Steinbeck, and others.

The Death of a Minister's Wife (1999)
The Death of a Minister's Wife starts with the narrator, The Rev Jarvis Hedlam, noticing a newspaper headline: Prominent Pastor Suspended. He is shocked to read that the man referred to is his childhood friend, now Father George Hawthorne. A phone call to a seminary classmate uncovers the fact that his grade school buddy has been suspended for alcoholism, is whispered to be a womanizer, and is under suspicion for the unexplained death of Stacey, his attractive wife. To add to the mystery, George Hawthorne himself has now disappeared. Father Jarvis feels he has to take vacation time off to track down his old friend and unearth the secret of Stacey's death.

Jarvis' religious faith is convincingly described: "My best prayer time is not in talking about my own needs but letting the Presence ingulf me and flow through me. An idea, which rapidly became a conviction, welled up within me that God wanted me to find George." He recognises it as "an inner certitude - a call - which has nothing to do with your own wishes or desires. Then, you must swallow your doubts and act on faith. Only the doing will prove if what you intuited was true." So "a quiet piece filled me - a sign of God's unfathomable nearness. Evidently, it was time for me to get off my knees and do what God would have me do - unless, of course, I was slightly demented and really out of my mind."

Unfortunately, though, some of the author's dialogue sounds rather stilted, as when George solemnly says, "As I was driving in the other night, I became aware that I had been enslaved in one area of my life and now was free," or when a detective says, "Enter and have a seat. Thanks to the co-operation of these two people, I think our mystery is solved," or when George says, "I thought I'd be wildly ecstatic if there was a possibility of proving my innocence of Stacey's death .... and I am relieved. But just about everything that's happened resulted from my enslavement to what was destructive." It does not exactly flow off the tongue.

Jarvis himself emerges as a real person, as when he tells us, "Women had generally been something of an enigma to me. I had always been a bit awkward in personal relationships." But then he meets the "captivating church secretary" Alex, and it is with her help that he eventually helps solve the mystery.

Although the plot creaks a bit, and the author's pedestrian storytelling can be rather tedious, the narrator's thoughts about his own life and its purpose still hold the interest: "We live within a mystery - in a vast, seemingly impersonal universe infused by a strange providence and healing love. We go through periods of painful suffering and moments of ecstatic joy. We have been given choice, yet with this freedom we can destroy ourselves and those around us. We need from God not only inspired teaching but acts that save and transform us if our lives are to be worthwhile. I slipped out of the office, enter the church, approached the altar, and fell upon my knees."

Poisoned in the Pulpit (2003)
Poisoned in the Pulpit gets off to a good start with Bishop Hartwell collapsing in the pulpit. It turns out that he has been poisoned, and there is no shortage of possible suspects. Amongst the clergy sitting in the front row is Father Jarvis Hedlam, who is one of the two narrators, the other one being the bishop's secretary Kelly, and there are also pages from the bishop's private diary. For four months now, Father Jarvis had been married to Alex - an "attractive, feminine brunette" whose first husband had died and who had a college age son.

Could the guilty party be The Rev Myra Breckenridge who had "blessed three gay unions in one day. She claims she feels solidarity with them as a woman, and if the national convention can okay a practising gay bishop, her actions are not out of line." But her congregation were up in arms and the bishop had not approved. Or could it be lay reader Gary Granger whose bad financial advice could lose the diocese "close to a million dollars on unestimated costs"? Or what about Father Jackson, who seems bitterly resentful of the bishop and is ready to harass him at every turn? And there are others too, including the writer of all the abusive hate mail that the bishop had been receiving.

All this church business is well described, as is the everyday work of a busy priest which the author must have known all too well, as when he tells us, "There is an old clergy maxim that when you've got problems make hospital calls and put your life into perspective." And it is easy to lose a sense of perspective. As Kelly says, " We spend most of our effort in this office worrying about three or four clergy and their parishes while all the rest do their job and go their merry way."

What seems less relevant is the way that the bishop devotes page after page of his diary to a description of his first love affair and what had happened to him at college. The author seemed to realised that all this needed some justication so had the bishop add: "Why I've logged all this convoluted history in my diary, I do not know. It feels somehow good to get it down in black-and-white."

The arguments over differing church attitudes to homosexuality seem fairly put, and the Bishop writes in his journal, about his need "to walk a fine line between accepting homosexuals for whom they are and yet not holding up their lifestyle for emulation".

The book has a slightly home-made look, as all the even-numbered pages have the heading Poisoned in the Pulpit but with no extra spacing left below it, so it tends to get confused with the text, and as rather large type is used, there are few words on each line and the attempt to justify the text leads to some odd spacing. So sometimes you get spaces after punctuation marks, and sometimes you don't.

The police sergeant asks Father Jarvis to sit in on his interviews as "You might be able to raise a question or two that I might overlook. Frankly, I'm not much of a church person myself." But they soon get rather tedious, and are no substitute for exciting action. It was Jarvis who had been quick-witted enough to ensure that the cup from which the bishop had been drinking immediately prior to his sermon wasn't immediately washed up, and who ends up hiding in a closet (while a police detective hides in the bathroom) of the bishop's hospital room to discover who is going to have a second attempt at murdering him. The suspects conveniently troop in one after another until the guilty partty actually gives the bishop another cup of poisoned coffee!

It's not the world's most convincing climax. What is well handled throughout is the description of relationships, the struggles for power, and other practical problems of church life and belief faced by the struggling clergy.


There is little about the author on the web.

Poisoned in the Pulpit is available, new or used. The Death of a Minister's Wife is more elusive but used copies can be found.



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Both books have that self-published look about them. The author was 78 when the second (and better) one was oublished.
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