|Father Robert Vickers
(creator: Kathie Deviny)
|Father Robert Vickers is the senior rector at Grace Episcopal church in Seattle, which had an average Sunday attendance record of only about 60 people and their average age was 70. This meant that the future of the church was always in doubt. Although a priest, he sometimes found It more convenient to describe himself as pastor because he had found that neither the police nor food bank clients were impressed by "the foreign words priest or rector." The author is herself married to a priest and details like this sound as though they may have been based on personal experience. They help to make him a more convincing character.
When we first meet him, he had been at the parish for five years. He is "a 5' 10", middle-aged, balding clergyman with thick glasses" (he is over 50) and has a mustache, and a quirky sense of humor. One of his elderly congregation thought that he looked "a bit like Brother Cadfael ..... She wondered why religious mysteries almost always featured monks or priests rather than the descendants of Martin Luther or John Calvin. Possibly they considered solving crimes a distraction from Bible Study." (This isn't actually so. See my contents list.)
His first and only marriage had ended 30 or 22 years before (depending on whether you are reading page 27 or 72 and 73) when his wife had chosen to be a physician rather than a minister's wife. This happened soon after he had graduated from seminary. He had only had one serious relationship since then and it had not led anywhere, so he is still hoping to meet the right woman. He is an extrovert and something of an idealist who would like to "devote more time to marrying and burying, visiting the sick, clothing the naked and feeling the hungry" than having to raise money to rebuild his crumbling church tower (described by engineers as "a pile of rubble, temporarily vertical"), for he had "never had to raise a serious amount of money and didn't have the temperament for the job."
Kathie Deviny originally planned a career in journalism, but she says she found she was too shy to chase after stories, so she followed her mother's career path and was awarded Bachelor's and Master's degrees in social work at UC Berkeley and the University of Washington. She married Father Paul Collins, an Episcopal priest, rector of Trinity Parish, Seattle (on which she based the fictitious Grace Church), and is still involved in church work. After retiring from a career as a "government bureaucrat" serving primarily in the criminal justice system for Snohomish County), she studied creative writing, and it was then that she wrote her first novel, Death in the Memorial Garden, reviewed below. She has also published articles about her treatment for breast cancer, and life as the spouse of an Episcopal priest. She and now-retired husband live in Santa Barbara but spend summers near her home town of Olympia.
Death in the Memorial Garden (2013)
Father Robert Vickers not only has to solve the mysteries of the anonymous ashes and falling stones, but also has to find to find a way of saving Grace Church from avaricious developers. This being a cozy mystery, it is no surprise that he finds romance along the way, but it is not long before he "felt the scalp prickles that often signified the voice of God ordering a course correction" for "he'd dreaded the moment when he might be romantically interested in a church member." But now it too had happened. Then another piece of cladding comes crashing down from the tower - and with much more serious consequences.
There are some interesting characters such as the reclusive shy young organist Daniel and the insufferably conceited Bishop who "would gladly disband the small congregation and sell the property" and who tells Robert, "Now, Bob, about your demographics. They're all wrong. Too many underprivileged, too many middle income seniors with no estates to leave to the church." I wonder if the latter could have been based on someone the author actually knew? She certainly writes about him with what seems to be a real feeling of disgust.
There are some interesting snippets of information too, such as that about the "clothespin call" way of raising funds that used "the method of the early 20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson: clotheslines strung over the pews with clothespins attached; the audience exhorted to pin paper money to the line, which was then moved towards the altar via a pulley arrangement." Robert isn't convinced that it would work for him. Yet he has to present the Bishop with some sort of "action plan" for saving the church.
In the end, helped by retired insurance investigator Joe Martin (whom he tells, "I can't do it on my own anymore. I don't have the stamina") and other members of his congregation, the mystery is solved - and the church is saved, not by Robert, it must be admitted, but by a surprise event.
It makes an easy-to-read story although the dialogue can sound rather stilted, as when Robert consoles one of his parishioners, "You've shown amazing fortitude by staying in Seattle and creating a productive life in spite of what happened. I'll be praying for a reconciliation. I'd better be off to wedge myself into the Bishop's hyperactive schedule." It doesn't exactly flow off the tongue, does it? It seems odd too that Robert's new lady friend, Molly, who was herself the daughter of a Bishop and works as an unpaid secretary for Robert's Bishop, didn't know the words mitre and crosier. It seems unlikely too that experienced priest Father Robert needs advice from young Daniel that, "We should pray for an answer instead of depending on just ourselves."
But then one of the voluntary helpers, a charismatic young man called Nick who used to entertain the other helpers with his comedy routine, is unexpectedly shot in the head, and so killed. It turns out that he had had a criminal past.
Detective Joyce Hitchcock and Officer Raymond Chen are put on the case, and, though it is they who do nearly all the detective work, once again their efforts are bolstered by the staff and members of Grace Church, including Father Robert himself, his fiancee Molly, Lester the formerly homeless sexton, and Daniel the organist. Daniel "looks younger than his 25 years. His short, skinny body, curly, dark brown hair and big brown eyes evoked everyone's protective instincts." He worries that he can't "think of the right anthem for the choir to sing when we bless the animals in two Sundays." He seems a suitably cozy character for a cozy mystery - especially as it is what he (eventually) remembers that, in the rather hurried and less than entirely satisfying conclusion, finally identifies the murderer (who turns out to be one of the more obvious suspects).
Although it is not a very exciting plot, the book is a considerable improvement on the previous one as there is more human interest, and it is more entertaining. This even applies to the (inevitable in cozy stories) descriptions of clothes when we are told that Stacy Chase, the church's "self appointed event coordinator", had clothes that "did not come from a thrift store. Her teal blue sweater, accented with an Indian print scarf, black leggings, and tall black boots, were exactly right for late September. They suited her tall, slim frame and her highlighted honey-coloured hair. She was protected from universal envy by her generous nature, a laugh that sounded like seal's bark, and a chronically red nose."
The dialogue flows more smoothly than in the previous book, though it seems surprising that the ex-vagabond Lester says things like, "These things I've been thinking can generally be broken down into three main categories and category one falls under the heading of building security ..."
It all makes an enjoyable read, particularly when the author seems to be writing from her own experience. It seems a pity anyone had to get shot ....
|The cover above does not mean much until you have read the book.
Below: the cover of the second book is very much more evocative.