(authors: Eileen M Berger, Nicola Furlong, Roberta Updegraff)
|Gracie Parks, when we first meet her, is a five-foot-four red haired widow aged 60 plus, who lives in Willow Bend, Indiana, and still much misses husband, Elmo, who had been killed in an accident five years before. She is an enthusiastic member of the choir at Eternal Hope Community Church, of which she was to became assistant choir director. She also teaches at Sunday School. She has a son, Arlen, but he and his family live in New York so, in his absence she had offered a home to old Uncle Milty. She also looks after a seven-year-old cat called Gooseberry. She "liked preparing meals and planning parties" and much enjoyed reading mystery stories for, as she points out, "A good mystery is refreshing; in what other genre can you routinely find right triumphing over wrong in today's world?" She is much motivated by her religious beliefs and, as Uncle Miltie tells her, "You're one terrific friend to many people."
Eileen M(ae) Berger (1927 - 2011) held a Bachelor of Science degree from Bucknell University and a Master of Science from Temple University and was a medical technologist for 25 years. She was a deaconess at Hughesville Baptist Church where she was a Sunday school teacher and sang in the church choir. She became president of American Baptist Women. She also taught in workshops, colleges and writers' conferences. In addition to The Highly Suspicious Halo, reviewed below, she wrote three further books in the Choir Mysteries series and some nine other books. She was the mother of three grown children (one of whom became a pastor), and lived with her husband Robert in Hughesville, Pennsylvania, where they ran a "Choose-and-cut" Christmas tree farm. Her husband had previously been a pastor for many years at Hughesville, Pennsylvania, but we are told that, "None of Eileen's real-life situations are reflected in her books, which are entirely fiction".
Nicola Furlong (1957? - ) was born in Edmonton in Canada and raised in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. She was awarded a BA in Fine Art and Psychology at Carleton University. She then worked for the Federal Government in Ontario/Quebec. She says that when she is not playing hockey, growing blue poppies or eating chocolate fudge, she "pens women's fiction and mystery novels, creates interactive children's books for the iPad, podcasts about genre writing, publishes ebooks and produces promotional book trailers." She is the author of six of the Church Choir mysteries (including The Angel's Secret, reviewed below), and has written guides to mystery writing, self publication and gardening. She admits to being a "shameless self-promoter", and modestly describes one of her books as "crackling with wit and suspense". She lives in Sidney, a small town on southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Church Choir Mysteries: The Highly Suspicious Halo (2000)
It tells how Gracie Parks becomes involved in an improbable mystery in her own choir: Amy Cantrell, a 17-year-old choir member, suddenly becomes sick, possibly poisoned. So the church's prayer chain gets going. Soon Amy seems to be getting better - until she mysteriously disappears from the hospital. Gracie tries to get to the bottom of it, wondering if she had gone off with a mysterious boyfriend. The police too are involved, and chief Herb who was also a member of Eternal Hope Church, tells her, "I, personally, have being doing a whale of a lot of praying for her and for all of you and suggest you do likewise." So we may be sure everything will be all right.
It is a truly cozy little story, complete with cute drawings of a cat at the start of each chapter, and a recipe page for Snickerdoodles at the end of the book, with Gracie ever conscious of "those many kernels of blessings all around her". When another widow tells her that she must get lonely, she replies, "If you mean missing Elmo (her husband who had died 5 years before), of course I do, and always will. But I don't wallow in it, dear friend. There are too many things in life good things, I'll have you know for me to lose out on if I allow myself to stay in the dumps!" So she remains relentlessly cheerful throughout. To her even decrepit old Uncle Miltie is "a lovable lump" and his presence in her house continues to be "a blessing". Her main worry is with conducting her church choir preparing for a singing contest against seven other churches. Their party piece is Help Me to See Thee, Lord which was actually written by the author herself. It includes the following distinctly awkward lines:
Her one uncharitable thought is directed against fellow choir member Estelle with her "sugar-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth persona" that gave Gracie a mental picture of her "reaching her arm up in an annoying manner, adjusting her halo, which she so assiduously tried to keep polished." So there's little doubt who is going to be under suspicion!
There are even hints of possible romance when she drops in on her old friend Rocky who runs the local newspaper.
After a brief mention of Guideposts magazine that happens to be lying on a table in the hospital lobby, it all ends with a lengthy and rather boring conversation in which Amy explains all. It seems a pity that the author had not drawn more heavily on her own experiences - surely they couldn't all have been quite as cozy as this.
The Angel's Secret (2001)
This had the most interesting plot of the three books in the series that I have read, and I really got quite interested In the young family that Gracie was trying to help, despite the stilted style of some of the conversations, as when young Pastor Paul says, "This annual celebration of our Lord's birth really is one of my favourite events in the church calendar. The Sunday school kids, bless their tiny hearts, reenact the miracle of the first Christmas."
And, one assumes, her target audience would enjoy her long account of the pie-making bee to which she devotes page after page, as well as the recipe for Gracie's Piquant Pork Chops.
Gracie herself Is as confident as ever that God is at hand to help her so she tells Him, "It was You who arranged for Uncle Miltie to live with me. For that, I will be eternally grateful." And when she and her friends are involved in a serious road crash in the snow, they know at once what they must do: recite the Lord's Prayer together, although Gracie is in some pain when she prays, Dearest God, I know You are ready to heal me.
After all the odd things that have happened, Gracie realises at last, "Something wasn't right .... But I know Who I'm going to ask for guidance." She cannot but agree with her friends who pray, "Without Your watchful eye, I'm certain the accident and injuries would have been much worse. I'm sure our families and friends are very worried about us. If you could somehow let them know that we're all right, I'd be grateful. Thank you." Gracie is soon believing that God arranged it all to make them seek refuge in the house of the family that so badly needed their help. And when she comes up with a scheme for helping them, Pastor Paul tells her,"Gracie, you're absolutely amazing! How on earth did you think of it?"
Readng all these reassuring messages, you begin to wonder if the author was dutifully follow a set of instructions from her Guideposts publishers, especially when she even managed to get in a quote from "the latest Guideposts Magazine": Friends are like angels without any wings. Blessing our lives with the most precious things.
The Baffling Bequest (2003)
No. 24 in the series, this is another gossipy, cozy, simplistic but basically happy little story. By now Gracie has grown increasingly pious and just has to have a brief word with God for everything to be put right. "It was clear God has made a difference in many lives by inspiring Pastor Paul (a young man adored by all the congregation) to match Eternal Hope's older and younger members." Gracie "was convinced this new endeavour was a heavenly endeavour. It not only brought people together, but gave them fresh perspectives and all with God's blessing .... God did indeed have a knack for bringing the right people together." Gracie herself is always happy to pray aloud with anyone who will allow it and never seems troubled by the slightest element of doubt.
Gracie's best friend, Marge, is equally sure of God's help. At one point she exclaims, "Oh, how wonderful! God heard our prayers."
Another happy character is Uncle Miltie who still lives with her, with, of course, never a cross word between them. She even enjoys his never ending stream of old jokes and the way he shares his comedy act with young Kevin, a boy with few friends: "Did you hear what happened when the red boat and the blue ship collided? Miltie asked.
|Eileen M Berger|
|The cover gives a good idea of what sort of book it is. Gracie Parks is, I assume, the third from the left, the one with the pious expression and the red hair.
All the books have similar saccharine-type covers.
|Gracie and Uncle Miltie on the cover of The Angel's Secret.|