|The Rev Lucas Holt & The Rev Matt Beck
(creator: Charles Meyer)
|The Rev Lucas Holt (Father Holt) has reluctantly taken over St Margaret's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin. Its well-off parishioners "covered the psychological and theological spectrum from charismatic fundamentalists to social justice liberals and all the perversions in between".
"He wondered why he had left the penitentiary. Twenty years he had been chaplain to the male and female inmates there, pimps, hit men, drug dealers ..... He had left all that behind for a parish, something he said he never wanted, wasn't cut out for, would fail miserably in if he took one." He "missed the realness of the people there, the incredible stories of their lives ... he missed the lies they swapped and the stories they told, their playfulness and their candor. Most of all, and he could admit this to no one but himself and God, he missed what he called the Dark Edge. The Dark Edge was that part of human beings that was kept most under wraps. At St Margaret's it was hidden deep .... At the penitentiary it was raw, always near the surface, ready to erupt at any time .... He liked it because he knew the Dark Edge within himself. He identified with the rule breakers, the sociopaths, the outcasts of an affluent society, and he knew but for his committment to God he could have been in the next cell".
He is still in regular contact with a group of rehabilitated ex-cons whom he helped in prison. "The group of inmates, mostly long-timers, who had attached themselves to him at the pen were derisively known as the God Squad. They could be prankishly funny when there was little else to do, or they could be lethally serious if any of their members, especially Lucas Holt, was threatened." When Holt discovered that they have followed him to Austin, he "didn't know whether to laugh or cry". They were led by Nikky Dorati, who had been originally sent down for 30 years for manslaughter, who had heard from Holt "a side of the Bible he had never heard before - a realistic, down-to-earth side, presented by a man absolutely convinced of its meaning today, not millenia ago. Much to his surprise, the stories started making sense to him". To the God Squad, Holt was simply "the Rev".
Holt makes a brave, shrewd, determined and outspoken detective with a strong social conscience, who is not above "borrowing" evidence from a scene of crime if he thinks it necessary. It is said that he " shot at least one inmate.... in a disturbance at the prison". He seems still capable of it, if the need really arises.
The Rev Matt Beck is a chaplain at Grassland Hospital in New York. Aged 35, he has worked his way through General Theological Seminary, juggling school, a part-time job, and a full-time marriage, But the marriage had only lasted two years before his wife, Kate, had been murdered. This had happened ten years before we meet him. He now has an on-going relationship with photo-journalist, Anne Demming.
In many ways, he seems to bear a close resemblance to his author, sharing his views on what makes a good death ("one with less pain and more dignity"). "His job was to make death normal, to still the panic so people could part, and depart, in relative peace .... After years of tending to dying people and their families, it had become clear to him that, more often than not, the patients were far better off. They usually handled their deaths more easily than the families and actually suffered less. Of course there were other times of tragedy or trauma when the patient suffered miserably and the survivors would bear pain for years to come. Pain like his own." He is nothing if not a realist. He can get angry too, as when he he tells police commissioner Rinski, "I don't like you .... and I don't like the bullshit politics you stand for". But he makes a courageous, determined detective.
The two detective-priests were the creation of The Rev (Richard) Charles Meyer (1947 - 2000) who was himself an ordained Episcopal priest who served as vice president of operations and director of pastoral care at St David's Hospital in Austin, Texas, a town "where the only organized crime .... is the bus system". He was one of quite a group of crime writers living in Austin, Texas (others included Sharon Kahn and Jan Maxwell). Austin, acording to a character in one of the books, was "the liberal mecca of the state where it was joked that everyone was either a writer, a singer or a healer".
Meyer spent twenty years ministering to dying patients as a hospital chaplain and published five books on death and dying, a subject on which he became an acknowledged expert. Known as "Chuck" to his friends, he had a reputation of being able to combine all this demanding work with and about the dying, with a sense of humor.
He had also spent ten years working in a New York prison and a Texas jail. He used this experience for his four detective novels, three of them featuring Rev Lucas Holt, and the last one, Deathangel (completed just before his death), featuring The Rev Matt Beck. He was killed in a traffic accident in 2000, when an oncoming vehicle drove into him across the highway while he was taking his wife to hospital for her leukemia treatment. Only she survived the accident.
He was posthumously awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the South West where he was described "as simply a good person, an exemplary teacher at the seminary, and a model of the ministry of compassion".
The Saints of God Murders (1995)
Unpleasant characters in the story include Father Holt's Bishop who had known that St Margaret's was in deep financial trouble when he sent Holt there. "I knew it would either make you or break you," he told Holt. "Of course I prefer the latter. You are an embarrassment to me, Father Holt. Simply put, you and your liberal ideas are an embarrassment to the whole church". No wonder Holt refers to him as "Boom Boom down at the God Box" and tells him, "Listen to me, Emil. I don't like being set up, I don't like your right-wing, nationalistic, mealy-mouthed, pietistic religion. But most of all I don't like you." We are left wondering if the author ever really spoke to his bishop like this - perhaps it is just that he would have liked to.
Holt has a regular girl friend, Kristen Wade, with whom he sleeps on a casual basis, knowing that "that the relationship would not go anywhere". It was just "an exercise in staving off loneliness, passing time pleasantly playing and holding. Neither one would let it grow into love. Neither one could afford it". He also still has a more romantic attachment to Lieutenant Susan Granger of the local police, with whom he'd had "a passionate and stormy encounter" in their student days. It is she who helps him sort out the murderer.
He's "much attracted to lost causes" but not always a very sympathetic character : "Kids drove him crazy. He disliked intensely their screechy little voices ruining the hymns of the church ..., They were always squirming and picking their noses and giggling and distracting people - usually their parents - who for some unknown reason thought they were cute". So, one way and another, he wasn't really the ideal parish priest.
Blessed are the Merciless (1996)
Holt is about to turn 43. It is 2 years since he left prison service. Although living on-and-off with Kristen Wade, he is still attracted to his one-time girl friend Lieutenant Susan Granger of the local police, so is all the more surprised when he and his entire God Squad are arrested by her. "Father Holt," she told him, "I have a warrant for for your arrest issued by Judge Waller, for withholding and obstructing justice". It turns out that things are not quite what they seem - but I won't give away what happens.
Suffice it to say that it all adds to the entertainment value of an interesting story that combines a realistic look at death and suffering with an impish sense of humor. After anointing a dying and lonely old man, he thought, "Death made him want to do something to reassert the illusion of control, make the bed look more normal, like the person was 'sleeping'. Family members always wanted to close the dead person's eyes as they do in the movies. And he always had to instruct them that in real death the lids seldom stayed down and often plopped back open." Then "the nurse walked in and emptied the pateient's medications, toothbrish, and deentures into a plastic bag, "I wonder where he is now?" she said.
Holt is nothing if not outspoken and realistic. "He "hated the recent spate of movies that showed death as one more painless scene change, depicting afterlife as a permanent vacation in Southern California with all the beautiful people happily consuming even more food and Perrier. He had preached sermons on the way the movies, and the New Agers never depicted the kind of death he'd witnessed at the hospital the other day, always showing death as clean, quick, and, most of all, temporary. There was never suffering, disability, slow deterioration, or indignity of incontinence, debility, or dementia." This is surely the author speaking, and it is this grounding in reality that give these stories, however fantastic, their appeal.
Like the author, Holt is determined to help old people die with dignity, so when he finds "a flurry of activity" around the bed of an old lady whom he knew had wanted to die in peace, he intervenes urgently: "This lady was a Comfort Only Category. She was not to have CPR, much less have her heart shocked". The patient dies. "I hope you know this woman's death is on your conscience," he was told.
There is a lot of exciting action, particularly at the end when Lucas is out running with, unknown to him, a bomb in his headset! Despite its concern with the ultimate realities, it is an entertaining story written with compassion and humor.
Beside the Still Waters (1997)
Holt has to flee to avoid arrest and takes refuge, helped by his God Squad, in a series of underground tunnels. But almost immediately, and with his clothes still covered in blood, he still bobs up to join in a compline service in church where he denounces Kristen's rival candidate, a man of the extreme right: "The Religious Right is neither! They are not religious .... and they are not right. They are self-righteous. Their unctuous piety cloaks a mean spiritness ... ". Then he has to rush out of the church one way while the police rush in the other.
Kristen Wade apparently survives the shooting and ends up in a hospital bed, guarded by God squad member Omar Kandu. He had been a con-man and pickpocket, but had been persuaded to wear a clerical collar to gain admission to her room. "You pray, don't you?" Maxine Blackell, Holt's ex-madame secretary, had asked him.
Meanwhile Susan is being pressurised by her boss, Commissioner Dillon, to get Holt in custody before a week is up. And Holt's Bishop has decided to temporarily replace him with a woman who shares his own right-wing views, The Rev Rhondalyn Doss, professor of history and liturgics, "someone who," the Bishop says, " has a sense of the mission and the accurate theology of the church .... I find it extremely difficult to believe that Lucas Holt will rise from his self imposed exile totally expunged from this nasty business, in which case, of course, I shall be forced to take action to defrock him permanently".
Holt had been in love with Susan and is now in love with Kristin. But he does not hesitate to turn off Kristin's life support system which, he knew "would end her pain and their suffering" But then she "opened her eyes and threw her arms around him, pulling him into bed on top of her.
Holt talks to his ex-cons in a way they can understand. Jesus, he explains, was a bigger rebel than them, "got into more trouble and ended up executed by the State. If he was around today we'd be singing The Old Wooden Electric Chair. Jesus was in the acceptance business, not the condemnation business." When Jimmy, one of the God Squad, succeeded in accessing the police computer to provide Holt with some information he needed, Jimmy "raised his hand and threw back his head. 'Thank ya, Je-sus.' Holt loved this "imitation of the 'fundies' - Fundamentalists who took credit for 'finding' the Lord, like He was lost. For Holt, religion was not about man's search for God, but about God's search for man - which was something to be unpretentious about, not self-righteously proclaiming that they're better or more saved than other people because they found the Lord. Piety made him puke."
The author himself often criticised those who artificially delayed the death of the hopelessly ill, just causing them unnecessary suffering. So it is no surprise when a nurse explains how Holt, disguised as a doctor, "walked in from Recovery, and talked with those attending for these five women (botulism victims). Next thing I knew we d/c'd all aggressive treatment but comfort care and upped the morphine - like we should have done when they came in." But he goes round anointing them before they die. "Couldn't send them Home without a proper finish. Had to grease the way for them. You never know. Can't hurt. Might help." It sounds so much like someone writing from deep personal experience - as indeed it was.
One way and another, what with death threats, syringes and condoms laced with e-coli, blackmail, beatings-up, broken bones, vicious shoot-outs, explosions, and even biological agents, a lot happens in this book, and it all makes for a surprising, exciting, amusing story. With all this going on, it can also get confusing at times. But It holds the interest throughout: "Vengeance may belong to God, but Holt would provide the opportunity - and maybe the means." This was the last Lucas Holt novel. Recommended.
It's a lively, gripping story with all the surprises you would expect from this author, yet somehow it seems more realistic than the earlier books. Beck's relationship with Anne has been developing ever since she had received a Pullitzer nomination for her coverage of the Deathangel murders ten years before. "They had been together this long time, tolerant of each other's unfinished business with former loves, and he had recently begun thinking maybe he could move seriously into Anne's life and let her fully into his".
Beck is a tough, resolute character, as is Anne, and they both survive numerous attempts to knock them out, blow them up, gas, knife or shoot them. And the people around them are not any safer. Casualties in this book include a priest (to whom Deathangel confessed his sins, then killed to be sure that he would not be tempted to break the confessional seal), a female assassin, a chauffeur and several of the main suspects who are involved in a violent climax at the end. But the crooks and potential crooks, including the police commissioner, his boss the County Executive, a prison warden and a scheming bishop are very well handled and are all too convincing.
The author sometimes blithely uses initials without bothering to explain them: "We have received a direct call to the unit from ER. EMS dragged him out of a car .... Looks like a GOMER to me, Multiorgan system failure, EMS intubated him .... ", but somehow this all adds to the feeling of realism. Amusingly, he obviously can't spell crème brûlée as, in the first hardback edition, published just before the author's death in a car accident, this appears as cr¿me broillæe, a printer's signal that this needs checking. Or perhaps it was the French accents that puzzled them.
The cover picture (see photo above) really does show an Austrian angel figure, purchased near the old concentration camp at Mauthausen which Anne visits in the story. Meyer took great trouble to get his backgrounds right. Recommended.
|The books have unusual but interesting covers.|
|Only this, the last book, features The Rev Matt Beck.|
|Charles Meyer used to sign himself as Chuck.|