Rev Ziza Todd

(creator: David Willis McCullough)


David McCullough
Ziza Todd, in the first book, is still a student awaiting ordination and is on leave from the divinity school in Rochester. In the second book, we are told that, after ordination, she had become an assistant Presbyterian minister in a big downtown church in Albany where she had been put in charge of "community outreach" and spent most of her time handing out food for the old and/or homeless. Preferring a job "in which she would be more involved with people than canned goods", she moved on to Childtown, "an isolated community for disturbed and problem children". She stayed there for over three years. The last straw came when when 7-year-old Ezra, born a heroin addict, called her a "Fuckin' cunt bitch faggot". "Of such is the kingdom of heaven, she thought. Suffer the little children ... " But she left to run youth programs for three churches at Quarryville in the Hudson Valley, an area that the author knows very well. And this is where the second book was set. She was now in her late twenties.

She liked people and found that they liked talking to her. "If, she sometimes asked herself, if she had a stronger personality, would she still find herself so honestly intererested in other people's lives? Would she still have asked the key question that always encouraged the talker ... to get into the real meat of what had happened? .... And why - this is what she asked when she was really feeling sorry for herself - did she never run into anyone .... who showed the slightest interest in hearing, really hearing, her own story?"

The answer, I'm afraid, is that she just is not all that interesting. We discover very little about her inner world and her religious beliefs. But, we are told, as a runner , she "trots along" happily chanting "ZizaTodd, ZizaTodd, Lamb of God, Eyes of God, Wrath of God, Rotten Cod, Pretty Odd, Ziza Todd..." But she is nothing if not resourceful, and quite prepared, if sufficiently provoked, to use "a well-aimed knee, a surgically precise strike, as they used to say about bombing raids" on a man's groin.

Ziza, by the way, rhymes with Liza and had been the name of her great-grandmother. In real life, it had apparently also been the name of the author's great-grandmother.

David Willis McCullough (1937- ) lives in New York. He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1959. After graduate school at Stanford University and a brief stint on the Oakland (CA) Tribune, he returned to New York and spent the rest of his professional career in the publishing business, chiefly The Book-of-the-Month Club, where for a number of years he was a member of the editorial board.
Besides his two mystery novels (described below) his published books include The Unending Mystery: A Journey Through Labyrinths and Mazes, as well as five anthologies (Great Detectives and City Sleuths and Tough Guys among them). He has also published short stories, essays and many book reviews. He is married to Fran, a writer and editor. They have two grown-up children.

Think on Death (1991) gets its title from the graves in the old cemetery at Smyrna. Ziza doesn't think much of such inscriptions. "That's actually an absurd thing to put on a gravestone," she says. "There's no way you can think on death. Thinking has nothing to do with it." And that's about as far as her religious beliefs seem to go.

She had, we are told, got bored with her divinity school with its tradition of preaching the social gospel and its "homiletic nitpicking" and "the social work she felt totally unqualified for", so her adviser "came up with a research project for her thesis. This was to research the story of Smyrna on the Hudson River, "one of the few nineteenth-century Christian Utopias communities still in existence". An old community, first known for its idealistic summer camp and old-fashioned ways, it had entered the capitalist age, lucratively producing and selling class rings to students all over the country.

But when she arrived, she found that community leader, ninety-three-year-old Anna May Quick, had died - and it is not long before Ziza herself stumbles across a human jawbone hidded behind a comic mask. There is a mystery about what had happened to young Llewelyn Quick, who had disappeared twenty years earlier. And then the body of the community director is found in the cellar.

Ziza had begun by making a joke about playing detective, but as soon as little bones are found left on the table after a meal of bacon and eggs, "the time had come, she thought, to begin in earnest". And this she does, going around questioning people and searching their rooms. She does not seem very concerned about researching other aspects of her project.

Another character, Naomi, a relation of the founder, Old Father Quick, seems to be almost as much of a central character. Like various others in the story, such as police inspector Nick Story (who likes everyone to call him Nick and is nothing if not relaxed. He had "rarely encountered killings in which mystery played any part whatever"), she seems to be a reformed alcoholic. But few of the characters arouse much interest, and we discover surprisingly little about Ziza herself.

Instead the narrative seems submerged in unnecessary and sometimes quite irrelevant details, and there are altogether too many lists of problems and recaps of them. Even Ziza fills in cards for each suspect - and even includes herself. How silly can you get? And, before the book ends, Nick comes up with his own list of suspects, but eventually tells Ziza, "Making up stories is not going to get us anywhere. Anyway .... I've heard that the suicide rate among novelists is dreadful. Worse than for policemen."

At the end, Ziza identifies and confronts the murderer, but Naomi tells her, "The thing about mysteries is that they are never really solved. It's all a matter of memory and forgetfulness and secrets that best stay that way. That's why detectives in novels are such fools. They actually seem to think they know what happened. There are always the bits and pieces we can never really know."

The book seems long because the pace is slow and there is more talk than action. There is some occasional humor as when Nick Story tells Ziza, "They say graveyards are restful. Lots of folks are certainly dying to get in."
And, when offered a lift, Ziza had asked him, "Are you a strange man?"
"Not that I've noticed," Nick Story said.
"Ok, then," she said. "My mother told me never to accept rides from strange men."
But all this is hardly hilarious. On the whole, it's a disappointing start to what was intended to be a whole series of books.

Point No-Point (1992)
Point No-Point (the title is a local place name) takes place in the fictional village of Quarryville north of Yonkers. The author's interest in and affection for this Hudson Valley region apparently inspired the book. Ziza's new assignment is to run youth programs for the three Protestant churches there (plus St. Hubert's Episcopal, which was empty), and for this she has the impressive-sounding title, "Director of Religious Education for the Quarryville-on-Hudson Community Pulpit". She is now twenty-nine, and realised that the real reason for having one Sunday School instead of three "had more to do with saving money than creating, as the prospectus said, 'a unified Christian experience for the youth of Quarryville'."
But she never seems to get round to doing this work, being too busily involved in looking into three murder cases.

The first to die is Dennis Morland, a young man who had been a model student, athlete and Boy Scout. Then another corpse is found in an old warehouse. Suspects include a number of people with interests in developing the waterfront property. They include the less than inspired mayor of the town, and the heiress who runs the Baraclough Trust (her great-grandfather had been Aladdin Baraclough, "not the worst of the Hudson Valley School painters"), and one of these meets a violent death too. Other not-too-inspiring characters include two bumbling and eccentric entrepreneurs, and Lillian Merversey, the town manager, who seems to have her nose in everyone's business.

The unconventional Methodist minister, Rev Ray Rickert , is more interesting. He seems happy to lend his belt to an old tramp, but is highly indignant when Ziza accidentally gives away his Levi jacket too. He shows quite an interest in her, as does the less than inspired mayor, Monty Monteagle, who had "figured out he was being paid (as mayor) about $2.50 an hour" which was "a good $2.50 more than he was making before".

Rickert seems "pretty free with the 'for Christ's sake's', but explains to Monty, "It's not swearing. It's what theologians call ejaculations, short, sudden prayers, It's a medieval custom that needs reviving. You can look it up in your dictionary. When I say 'for Christ's sake' that's exactly what I mean."
"Well," said Monty. "I guess this is one case when the gossip's true, I'd heard you were a great one for ejaculation."

The plot, despite such occasional lively touches, gets distinctly tedious and struggles to hold the interest, particularly towards the end when there are long, detailed discussions about who killed whom and why, and, even when the murderer tries to strangle Ziza, it is not really all that exciting. As the author so unsensationally puts it, "Ziza realised she was not being offered affection. She was being strangled."

The blurb describes this book as "the first of many mysteries starring Ziza Todd", but no others seem to have appeared. Presumably she didn't prove a strong enough character to sustain such a series.

The author has his own (short) website, but other references to him mostly just list his books.



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Think on Death covere
Point No-Point cover
The book covers are not very enticing.
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