John Smyth
(creator: James R Coggins)

James R Coggins
John Smyth is "short - about five, five one - bald, a little pudgy, with a full gray-and-red beard (and a mustache), and little wire-rimmed glasses ... He looked like one of the seven dwarfs". He didn't strike a local policeman as either "very polished or intellectual." As the editor of the church magazine Grace, he was "an expert in things thought unbelievable". He lives in Winnipeg with his wife Ruby, and four children, aged 5 - 11 when we first meet them, and is based at the demoninational headquarters of the Grace Evangelical Church of North America, about five blocks away from his house. There are, we are told, five hundred Grace Evangelical churches spread across North America. The hundred year old denomination is, in fact, a fictional creation and not "modeled on any existing churches". But it certainly sounds real enough.

Dr James R Coggins (1949 - ) has a PhD in History from the University of Waterloo. He was awarded a B.A. (English and History) and M.A. (History) from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and a Diploma in Christian Studies from Regent College He was an award-winning editor with the denominational magazine Mennonite Brethren Herald for 19 years. He named the hero of his murder mystery books, John Smyth, after the 17th-century English Separatist who was the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Smyth is based, he says, on his own life as an editor – except that, at five-foot-four, he says he is much taller than John Smyth. He and his wife Jackie have two daughters. They now live in Abbotsford, in British Columbia, where he works as a freelance editor and writer. He is an evangelical Christian who believes in the authority of the Bible and orthodox Christian doctrine. He has served in Christian churches in a number of capacities.

Who's Grace? (2004)
Who's Grace? is the first of a series of murder mysteries featuring church magazine editor, John Smyth. He is flying back to Winnipeg when, as the plane descends, he sees an apparent murder of a woman in white taking place on the ground below him. At first the police wonder if it was all a hallucination of a religious fanatic - but then a woman's body is discovered, bearing the name Grace on a necklace. Smyth finds himself the chief suspect. As there is doubt exactly where the body is (if it is anywhere), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (who are responsible for Manitoba), and are represented by Sergeant Robert Prestwyck, have to work with the Winnipeg City Police, represented by Detective Alexander Devorkian. Their relationship, as they identify three missing women, all called Grace, is nothing if not tetchy. As Devorkian sarcastically tells Prestwyck, "It is a great day when we are honored with the presence of Her Majesty's Royal Horsemen in our humble establishment".

"Could it be," writes a local journalist, "that a serial killer is out there, stalking and killing women named Grace?" In the end, it is Smyth himself who is able to identify the dead woman. As he tells the "motionless and speechless" Prestwyck and Devorian, ""I also think I know who killed her. I think I can take you to him - and to the place where she was murdered". And off they go in Smyth's battered old station wagon. "I thought you said you had a car," complains Devorkian, as they bumped their way through the streets of Winnipeg.

Smyth, like the author, is an evangelical Christian. He says, "Doesn't he (a local psychiatrist) know that evangelical Christians on average are happier and healthier, both mentally and physically, than other people? Doesn't he know that married evangelicals enjoy sex more than other people do, married or single?" I hope (but am not absolutely certain) that the humor here was intentional!

The book is published by Moody Publishers of Chicago who, since 1894, have "been dedicated to equip and motivate people to advance the cause of Christ". So the story ends with a declaration "of God's goodness, God's grace".
"But you didn't stop her (the victim) from being killed," Devorkian points out.
"No, we didn't stop her from being killed, but we did reveal her killer, and now he's being called to account for his actions. And we will see her again."
"Where? You mean in heaven?"
"Yes, in heaven."
"And I suppose (the murderer) will end up in hell?" Devorkian asked impatiently.
John Smyth shrugged. "Unless he changes, which is -"
"And if he did, would you accept him into heaven?"
"It's not up to us. It's God who decides who gets to heaven. But yes, if he chose to follow Christ, he would be our brother. We would accept him as that, a long-lost brother ... After all, none us claims to be perfect."
"With the possible exception of ... Detective Devorkian," smiled Prestwyck.

But it all makes quite an interesting story, with some lively characters, helped along by some nice humorous touches.

Desolation Highway (2004)
Desolation Highway describes how little fingers then other body parts are found in the bush, not all that far from Prince Rupert. It turns out that the remains include two left thumbs. There's a possibility that it may all be the work of a serial killer, possibly using a chainsaw. John Smyth is anxious not to get involved - but in the end he does. For one thing, he's anxious to discover what has happened to his missing friend Jake. But in fact nearly all the detective work is done by the police, particularly by Sergeant Troy Wesson who "was a twelve year veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but he had no horse, just a wife and two kids".

There are a number of eccentric characters living in the neighbourhood, ranging from a possible witch to an apparent hermit, and a wood carver with a chainsaw in almost constant use. As Wesson points out, "Most people in places like this are running away from something. We have plenty of good, stable people here, but there are also a lot of people running away from things - criminal charges, debts, alimony and child support, bad marriages, broken relationships, family expectations, the rat race, stressful jobs, moral restrictions, traditional religion, conventional social expectations. The mountains and forests are good places to hide".

Smyth is at Prince Rupert to report on the revival of the Grace Evangelical Church there, where "attendance at the church has gone up by about fifty people, and twenty-seven people have been baptised ... as new Christians. That's quite remarkable for a small church in a small town". He asked Wesson if he had ever been to a service there. "No," Wesson said shortly, Then, as if to explain, he aded, "No offense, but I don't really have time for that. I have some murders to solve. I'm dealing with matters of life-and-death."
"So is the church," Smyth replied.

Wesson, following his wife's example, does eventually get to the church, and is surprised to find that "the small building seemed full to capacity, with more than two hundred people there ...The crowd seemed to be largely composed of young families .... He was one of the few people wearing a tie ... On the stage at the front of the church was a band composed of a drummer, a keyboard player, three quitarists ... and two young women singers ..... The crowd got to its feet and began clapping and singing to the music ...", even repeating one song five times. It's a scene with which the author was obviously very familiar.

For Wesson, though, things get more and more confusing. In a single afternoon, he reflected, "he had already encountered a dwarf (John Smyth), a wood nymph ... a witch ... and a magician with a disappearing act". He doesn't welcome Smyth's asistance, even when Smyth says, "You don't think we would make a good crime-fighting team? We've got the right names for it."
"Names?"
"Smyth and Wesson."
"Thank you," Wesson said. "But it will be hard work that solves this case, not prayer."

After a sixth victim has been found, Smyth is reading James 5:1-6 when "he finally got it" so he 'phones his old acquaintance, Sergeant Prestwyck, and tells him, "It's just that I think I know who the victims of the B.C. chainsaw murderer are ... and I think I know who murdered them too." He then persuades Prestwyck to help him stage an improbable charade with the help of Jake's sister in order to secure the murderer's confession. Sergeant Prestwyck later tells him, "You were right. I thought your theory was way off base. I'm still amazed that I let you talk me into that little charade." So is the reader!

Smyth explains that it was the Bible passage that had given him a clue. Sergeant Wesson thanks him for his help. "I didn't do much, just consulted the Person who knows all the answers."
Wesson looked puzzled.
"I prayed to God, Sergeant .... "
"And I told you the case would be solved by hard work, Wessson reflected ruefully.
"That's partly true. I was working at something when I discivered the answer, I think that makes a good combination."
"What? You and me? Smyth and Wesson?"
"No. Prayer and hard work. God and human beings."

It makes an interesting story, despite the unlikely ending, but it would have been better still to have had Smyth more actively involved throughout.

Mountaintop Drive (2005)
Mountaintop Drive is set in the (real) city of Abbotsford in the Bible Belt in British Columbia, where John Smyth, accompanied by his wife Ruby, had been covering a convention for his magazine and had stayed on to write articles about the two very contrasting (if fictititious) Grace Evangelical churches in the town, one in a sumptious building catering for the very rich (with a weekly attendance of over 4000) and the other in run-down premises for the poor. But then the woman next door is murdered, and their host abruptly leaves town. Smyth assures Ruby, "I'm not going to get involved. Why should I?". But when the police end up on the wrong track, it is Smyth who once again has to explain to them who the murderer really is.

The characters, including their introspective host, Dr John Robinson, and the two very contrasting pastors, are very well drawn, and even the Smyth's 13 year old son Michael (who never actually appears in the story but who is going through a difficult period - he mutters about his father that "his work is always more important than we are") and is much in Smyth's mind, seems very real. There's also an Indo-Canadian police detective, Darwinder Sandhu, with whom you can't help but sympathise as he is kept firmly in his place by his so superior police partner.

The world of the churches is very well caught too, with the public testimonies, Biblical references, the question "Are you saved?", and the ever present belief in sin ("Smyth had in his files a survey showing that fewer than 20 percent of Canadians still believed in a God who 'punished sins' ". Smyth wondered if that meant they thought "there was no such thing as right or wrong".) The pastors too, very different from each other but sharing the same basic beliefs, are interesting characters. It is one of them that explains that "Christianity was never meant to be a religion, a series of ceremonies or activities for people to participate in. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth not to establish a religion, but to establish a relationship between individual human beings and himself, between individual human beings and God."

The Bible Belt may have got "one of the highest rates of church attendance in Canada and one of the highest rates of charitable giving, but (it has also got) one of the highest murder rates". As Smyth says, "The battle beween good and evil occurs in all people ... in the best as well as the worst of us".

This is a strong story with Smyth and his work at the center of it, and, with its convincing church background and interesting interplay of characters (including the various policemen), it holds the interest throughout. It is the best book in the series so far. Recommended.

Springtime in Winnipeg (2015)
Springtime in Winnipeg only comes after six months of snow and numbing cold that are graphically described. It is then that the lifeless bodies of beautiful young women begin to be discovered discovered lying near the paths in the woods along the Assiniboine River next to Assiniboine University.

The murder mystery is combined witrh academic discussions of the nature of the mystery novel, for when John Smyth, the diminutive editor of Grace magazine, is told by his new boss that he must obtain a journalism degree, the subject of the first course he chooses is "The Nature and Development of the Mystery Novel". His wife Ruby tells him that she does not see how that is "going to help you to be a better editor of Grace magazine." Smyth tells her that maybe he won't tell his new boss what course he is taking.

The story is told with verve and humor, as when a snooty university interviewer tells him, "We don't normally give advanced credit for Bible college work. The standards at University are much higher .... Mr Smyth are you over 40?"
"Yes," he stammered. "I turned 40 last year.
"That explains it," she said. "You are a mature student." She said the words as one would say, "You are a drunk," or "You are a cockroach."
"Is that bad?"
She sniffed and put him firmly in his place; "Mature students are evaluated by different criteria. This explains why have been accepted into the third year of the BA in English and Journalism program."

Smyth is warned by a friend on the university staff that there is a bias in the University "against conservative thinkers and against anyone who doesn't adhere to certain philosophical principles which now dominate university teaching .... Certain ideas are not welcome - if you do not support evolution or abortion or homosexuality, for instance .... It is difficult to be a Christian here. Immorality is condoned, and morality is ridiculed." So, when confronted by Professor Hemenhof, the combative atheist who teaches his course, Smyth does not hesitate to stand up to him, as when in the first session, Prof Hemenhof declares, "There has not always been a mystery novel. It all began with Edgar Allen Poe. Or, if you are in Britain, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are some who say it started earlier than that with Wilkie Collins's novel, The Woman in White, but people who say that are wrong .... Is there something wrong, Mr ...."
"Smyth, John Smyth."
"An assumed name, I presume?"

The class snickered, Smith pointed out, "I was thinking it all began with Cain killing Abel, the first recorded murder in history. That's in Genesis 4, the first book of the Bible."
"I see. And who solved that murder mystery?"
"God did."
Hemenhof looked sceptical, and suggested that Smith should "let me get back to teaching this class so you might learn some of the things you don't know." (For more about Cain and Abel, see my Daniel page)

In fact, Hemenhof is not always all that interesting and even makes the mistake of trying to imitate Sherlock Holmes by saying "It's elementary, my dear Watson!" - a sentence that doesn't actually appear in any of the Holmes books. However, he gives the author an opportunity to laugh at himself when he argues that "a strange thing happens to many successful mystery writers. They begin to develop the delusion that they are real novelists. They start to think that readers are so fascinated by their hero - who is usually based on the author - that they will read a whole novel just to find out what is going on in the life of this central character. This is a mistake, because few individuals are interesting enough on their own to maintain readers' interest over a long series of books." In fact, the most interesting parts of this book are those in which the central character Smyth (based on the author) appears. The police characters appear much more humdrum and do not hold the interest in the same way.

The professor ends each lecture with a clue to help his class solve a murder mystery (do Canadian universities really run courses like this?) and Smyth enjoys discussing this with his much younger fellow students. But it is the real murderer that he finally unmasks. And the supercilious Prof Hemenhof finally gets his uppance.

It all makes another enjoyable read and raises all sorts of literary and religious questions, even if the extensive discussion of mystery novels goes on a bit too long.



The author has his own website.



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Who's Grace? cover
This was the first John Smyth book. It has a very relevant cover.
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