|Rev Calvin Turkstra
(creator: Christopher H Meehan)
|Rev Calvin Truman Turkstra is a 6ft 2in tall man with "a long, slanting face, blondish-brown hair combed back, pin-point of a nose, pencil-line lips" and a "long and lanky body". When we first meet him, he is in his late thirties and, after a decade as a minister, is happy to be pastor of the Christian Reformed Church at Overisel in West Michigan. The 300,000 member denomination had been founded in the Netherlands and "held to a strict Calvinism that believed any of us, at any time, was capable of next to anything". But "Backward as some might see us, we thrived on well-founded, high-minded discussion ... Focused as we were on the literal truth embedded in Scripture, we also paid heed to human intelligence. At least to a point, we revered the human mind. Sometimes, of course, the heart suffered."
Turkstra had had a Calvinist father and a Roman Catholic mother. It was his father who had given him the name Calvin, and his mother who had added Truman, after the president. "I preferred Truman, and suspected my deepest leanings were in the liberal directions set by that man from Missouri." But he liked "the wonderful Reformed way we had of romanticizing our self-loathing - almost deifying our shortcomings. Masked in self-hatred, we all knew we were the chosen - as long as we never forgot, and continued to feel remorse for the fact that we were truly scum, dropped, dripping and whining, from the muck that was our lives without Christ."
His church is "hardly a church, really a reburbished shopfront" and he himself is not always immediately recognised as a minister as he likes wearing a T-shirt, on the front of which "was a faded photo of the Rolling Stones. On my head I wore a University of Michigan baseball cap". He realised that "the way I dressed was sometimes more a problem than it was worth". Even his hair could look "stringy, tied in the back with a rubber band".
Christopher H Meehan (1949 - ) was a prize-winning reporter for the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan, working on health and medical stories, and religion editor of the Kalamazoo (Mich) Gazette. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Michigan State University and a bachelor's degree in English literature and theology from the University of Detroit.
He has written four mystery novels, and co-authored Flourishing in the Land, a hundred-year history of Christian Reformed Missions in North America, and Gathered at the River: Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Its People of Faith. He is married with four children, and lives in Grand Rapids in Michigan.
Turkstra starts by going to see Marlan Oosterbaan, Holland's police chief and an old childhood friend. He discovers that the detective who had done the investigation was Bruce Slade, who had been far from being a childhood friend. Slade does not prove to be very helpful. And the more Turkstra discovers about the missing man, the more mysteries are uncovered. Had he committed suicide? Was he suffering from cancer or from AIDS? And had he made a second will that did not leave everything to his widow?
The story gets increasingly interesting as it unfolds. And the author's deep but unsentimental affection for the local countryside and people shines through: "I could tick off the names of the families who once lived - and in many cases still lived - in these homes. Nearly every one of Dutch stock, diluted (some would say polluted) by an occasional intermarriage with Poles, Germans and Irish. In these homes, and on these fields, resided a great pre-ordained force. As God's chosen, they labored hard, prayed fervently and stayed to themselves ... This enclave from which I had risen was walled in by beliefs that made the people feel special, if only by their rigid separation. As part of the cause, emerging from this Calvinist sustem of belief was a fierce commitment to the work ethic, which made many of these people prosperous."
Turkstra, who finds "strength and courage and true Christian caring in the strangest places", is usually stronger on practical compassion than profound spiritual insights. After a violent and exciting climax, he asks his old friend police chief Marlan, "Does it strike you that all this may be part of God's will?"
The book ends with Turkstra's (one and only) sermon. "What I know," he admits, "is that why we do what we do, and why God does what He does, is incomprehensible". But he bows his head and prays. Altogether, a well-written and quite interesting story.
Murder on the Grand (1997)
Detective Manny Rodriguez is, at first, prepared to share information with him, but eventually advises him, "Take care of Monica, go back to being a minister. Leave the rest to us". Turkstra reflects, "There he was being bossy, just when I thought we were starting to be bosom buds". Helped by Monica's retarded brother Bob, Turkstra eventually, in a dramatic climax, identifies the murderer - and even changes his own mind about the role of women in the ministry, so that at the end he is more than happy to attend Monica's ordination service.
Turkstra cannot help admiring how Monica "held to Christianity at its prickly core." Hers was "a religion, at least when practiced by a few believers, that was no theory. It was real and it worked. It's just that at times you got broken but good for the reaching out you did". But Turkstra himself with his "faulty hold on faith" still wonders, "How come the Lord, if this was his world, let such awful things happen? Even worse, how could he let persons who professed his name act like such jackals?" He also has his own memories (of Ruth, a woman from his own past who met a violent death) to come to terms with.
It all makes quite a strong plot, and Turkstra himself always holds the interest, but its not too easy to identify with some of the other less interesting characters.
Blood on the Bridge (1999)
Murder on Sacred Ground (2006)
Turkstra's own recourse to violence in this story does not make him as endearing a character as he had been in earlier books, and his religious convictions are now far from sure: "I thought for a moment that God, in his everlasting wisdom, made a big mistake when he called me to be a minister. At times, and this morning was one, I didn't know if I even believed in him. Facing life's wretchedness always made me feel this way". As pastor of his local community church, he is no longer a CRC pastor and says, "I felt freer, less bound by what I considered silly rules". Towards the end, though, he realises that "my ministry was no longer a ministry. It was a chaotic tumble downhill."
There are numerous unpleasant and unscrupulous characters,yet despite the vicious assaults and shoot-outs, all these violent events fail to be as exciting as the author must have intended. Perhaps this is because it is difficult to identify with, or care too much about, so many of the characters. The arch criminal the Muslim (?) Jamal, and the ever resourceful Roman Catholic priest Father Zerba really do strain credibility.
A character who does come to life in an endearing eccentric way is Bob, the retarded man, bear-sized brother to Turkstra's girl-friend Monica Smit (strangely enough, there's much more about Bob than Monica in this story. One of the previous books is partly dedicated to "the real Bob", so he is obviously based on someone the author knew). You feel for him, as when he comes out with pronouncements like "Blessed be the beekeepers" and happily traps a fly and puts it in his mouth.
In his foreword, the author thanks "the guy who told me to keep going when I wanted to stop". But you can't help feeling that his heart was not quite in it.
|There is a lot going on on the cover of the first book, created, it is carefully explained, from nine photos "with the aid of Photoshop 3.0".|