(creator: Michael Lister)
|John Jordan is a six feet tall ex-cop and now a prison chaplain. Born into an alcoholic family, and long broken with his mother over her drinking and with his sheriff father over his decision to leave law enforcement for the clergy, he was hounded out of his Atlanta parish and his marriage by accusations of sexual misconduct. He is now a recovering alcoholic, and it is the fact that he can (just) resist the temptation to drink that "more than anything else in recent memory, convinced me of the existence of God. Alone, I could not stay clean and sober". He lives by himself (for the most part) in a "tight, tiny, and dilapidated mobile home".
Like his author, he is not comfortable with organised religion. "I am essentially a member of the unchurched. Yet, since high school I've felt a strong sense of vocation, a paradoxical longing and belonging which somehow resulted in my becoming a nonreligious religious leader. I was on the very fringe of religion, but so far prison chaplaincy had worked for me."
He often thinks about death. "For me the comtemplation of my mortality is not morbid, not an obsession with death, but a call to life. Living with a sense of the brevity of my existence and a heightened awareness of the fragility of life reminds me to live each day to its fullest, to learn, become, and experience all I can, to truly live before I die."
He is very conscious of his own limitations: "My religion, what little I practice of it, is compassion".
Michael Lister was a chaplain at the Florida House of Corrections for seven years before becoming a full-time writer in 2000. He had come across the Father Brown stories for the first time when he graduated. He got the idea of writing about a prison chaplain, then was offered just such a job himself. He jumped at the chance of combining the job with researching the background for his first book.
He explains, "I still minister in prison. I still teach religion classes at a nearby college, and in a way, my writing combines the two. However, writing is my heart. It’s takes priority .... In addition to marrying the clerical and hard-boiled detective novels, I also wanted to create an almost nonreligious religious sleuth. Part of the tension and conflict of my own experience as a person of faith has always been my aversion to organized religion. Much of the tension has now been resolved since I started writing full-time, but when I was a chaplain it was a paradox that kept me in a predicament, and I wanted to give John Jordan the same uncomfortable conflict." He is married with two children and lives in north west Florida.
Power in the Blood (1997)
The author explains that "this is a work of fiction. I write fiction because it is the best way I can think of to tell the truth .... Thus this is a true story, though none of it really happened". He has more than a page of dedications. The second one is to "Jesus, my first love. Thanks for the passion, compassion, mystery and romance".
But the text is hard-hitting and very down-to earth, as when Jordan admits he had always found it easy to chat to women: "Once liquor had removed my inhibitions, I used to be able to charm the pants right off of them". In this story, Jordan has two would-be girl friends, one of whom is married but both of whom find him very attractive, One of them reminds him that "You are called to be a minister, not Father Brown, Bishop Blackie or Brother Cadfael". But he does not give up the chase, no matter how dangerous it gets. Indeed even when he knows who the arch villain is, he seems curiously reluctant to report him - and gets severely beaten up as a result.
The homosexual activities of "the punks, the pimps, the sisters, and then the inmates who use they services" (as one prisoner puts it) are described, and prison life in this institution, where 65% of the inmates are black and even the guards can't be trusted, is shown in all its violence. As one of the nurses tells him, "If you're not a criminal when you get here, you'll damn sure be one when you leave". Even so, Jordan tries not to give up on people: "In the few months that I had been at PCI, I had been lied to more than the entire rest of my life. However, I vowed again, right there and then, not to become so callused that I expect to be lied to".
Blood of the Lamb (2004)
The strength of the story lies in its graphic description of prison life with all its brutality and sexual perversity. Jordan himself gets savagely attacked. It's all very down to earth and realistic. When a black prisoner (most of the prisoners are black) shows Jordan two used condoms that he has discovered, he tells him, "There's a lotsa sex, but no condoms. I been down here a long time and these the first I seen". Then he shows Jordan a third one, streaked with blood and fecal matter. "Why they so different? he asked. "These used in a woman and this one in a man?" It's nothing if not explicit.
Jordan has learnt to beware of compliments from inmates: "Too often, by which I mean nearly a hundred percent of time, they are the manipulative part of an angle being worked. I wish it were otherwise, but it's the reality of prison". The challenge is "to have compassion without becoming a caretaker who's constantly taken advantage of. It's a precarious position and few of us ever succeed."
He is very upset by the little girl's death. "Nothing made me question my faith in goodness - in God - like the death of a child .... Images of Jesus praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane flashed in my mind. I heard his trembling voice begging for his life, and the cold, cruel silence that followed. Where was God then? Where was God now?"
Jordan has little time for the "flashy clothes, big, perfectly coifed hair, and liberally applied make-up" of the tele-evangelists, commenting that "that was the one thing liberal about them". Evangelist Bobby Earl's "message was one of guilt and shame, preached from a pulpit of fear and anger .... Bobby Earl's anti-intellectual religiosity and sentimental spirituality were shallow and filled with clichès. They were the first things most of the inmates gravitated toward and the last things they really needed". Jordan then discovers that Bobby Earl had himself been converted while he was in prison. And it turns out that he stood to gain a milion dollars from an insurance policy on his daughter's life. Could he have murdered his own child?
Jordan calls himself a "recovering alcoholic". When he visits his alcoholic mother, he finds her taken over by Sister Bertha "an extremely overweight lady in ill-fitting polyester pants and an untucked religious T-shirt that read 'Turn or Burn' over fiery flames." She told him, "Your mother's under the attack of Satan."
The story of Abraham and Isaac keeps recurring, and this provides the theme for Jordan's very honest sermon at the end of the book when he has to conduct the service for Nicole's funeral. "In spite of myself - in spite of all I've seen, I still believe. I trust. I choose love. Choose to believe that God is love. God asked for Abraham's trust, not his son. Today she asks us for the same thing. To trust. To trust that her heart is broken even more than ours. To trust that Nicole is with her, in the warm embrace of her love. Trust God, Jesus did."
The origin of this story is explained in a brief article in Mystery Magazine.
Flesh and Blood (2006)
But two of the stories are quite different. A Fountain Filled With Blood sees Jordan, accompanied by his long-term friend, the black Correctional Officer Merrill Monroe, meeting a little black girl, aged about ten, who has turned up at the Panama City Beach Christian Retreat, announcing that she was Jesus.
And that's not all she knows about him. At first he was just playing her along, but he gets more and more impressed by her answers and knowledge of things about him that no-one else could have known. Then he meets a young boy who tells him he has actually seen the girl bring someone back from the dead.
But the little girl does not impress the inevitable social worker who comes to take her in.
So, to a lesser extent, does Image of Blood. This describes how Jordan's dying mother asks him to look into the story of the Turin Shroud, as, if it is true that it showed the imprint of the dead Jesus, she would like to see it before she dies. Jordan looks into all the arguments about its history, including the carbon dating that dated it from only the 13th or 14th century. But he also finds apparently sane people who believe that the carbon dating got it wrong.
So he takes his mother to Turin to see the shroud. And he finds that, whether genuine or not, "it, like all art, was a evidence of the divine". And he realised that, despite all his doubts, "I'm a believer. I believe in mystery and possibility, that nothing is impossible. Not the existence of God. Not a virgin birth. Not a God-come-flesh. Not a resurrection from the dead. Not even a love that is stronger than death - a love that is itself an evidence for the existence of God, of the justification of the hope I felt. Hope for Mum, for me, for the world."
The Body and the Blood (2010)
He had come to the PM unit because of a note he received announcing that a murder would take place during the Catholic Mass. As Jordan attends the Mass, an inmate enters the unit, walks over to his cell, and is locked inside alone. A little while later, Jordan notices a pool of blood spreading out from beneath the cell door. The inmate is dead, his body and his blood separated from one another. The inmate, a talented artist and quite possibly an innocent man, had been sensitive and kind, just a few short days from parole.
Jordan sets about discovering how he was killed. Suspects abound, including the Catholic Priest conducting the mass, the two PM officers, the victim's sister, who had visited him just prior to his death (something she had not done in four years) and a handful of inmates, one of whom was the victim's male lover who tells him they had been "hoping to get married someday soon". As the investigation proceeds, Jordan uncovers crime after crime, before his best friend, Merrill Monroe, disappears and has to be rescued.
It makes a tough, realistic story, often very violent and sexually explicit. Jordan himself, who narrates throughout, tells us that he "had never felt more fulfilled, never been happier" than when working in prison, because of the opportunities it gave him "to minister and investigate, disparate vocations not normally brought together in a single position." But he is well aware how "the two sides of my convictions and calling - compassion and justice - were so often in conflict."
Interspersed with the violent episodes are long sections of talk that do not always hold the interest, although there is a good interchange between him and a white racist prisoner who told him, "When the kingdom comes, it won't be filled with a bunch of blacks and Jews."
Now a recovering alcoholic, there had been times in Jordan's lfe when "rage had taken the place of alcohol as my primary addiction" - and he still seems to enjoy a violent fight as when he beats up a rapist: "I had the urge to knock the nasty little smile right off his face. I went with the urge - a right hook to the head. I could feel teeth cut into the flesh of my fist .... I hit him again. And again. And again." He had, not surprisingly, "never felt comfortable or spent very much time within the structure of organized religion."
He admits that, "People who don't really know me are often surprised that a man of the cloth is as preoccupied with sex as I am," but for him "sexuality is a big part of spirituality". He is attempting reconciliation with Susan, his ex-wife who had failed to file divorce papers - and is delighted to find that she "seemed to be experiencing a sexual-spiritual awakening and I was reaping the rewards". He admits to being "shallow and immature" and is not always a very attractive character. At the end, he admits "At nearly every turn in this case I had gone for justice instead of mercy. I had achieved neither." It would have made a stronger story if he had been more successful. And it would have been easier to read if the Kindle version had not had an annoying extra line of spacing between every paragraph:
|The violence of the content is reflected in these book covers. The word blood appears in all the titles, so they all end up sounding rather the same.|