(creator: Emilie Richards)
|Aggie Sloan-Wilcox has been married, at the start of the first book, for twelve years to Ed, a Unitarian minister at the Tri-C: the Community Consolidated Church of Emerald Springs, Ohio, where he had been for a year, "just long enough, I knew from experience, for the applause to die down and the whispers begin". She explains, "As a teenager my personaltheology grew to include the following: There may or may not be a God. He or She may look like Lord Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, or perhaps some amalgam of an elephant as described by three mythical blind men who are touching either a leg, a trunk or a tail. Then I met Ed Wilcox. a seminary student and devoted attendee of the Unitarian-Universalist Church. They were a tad more orthodox than I was, but I did immediately feel at home." It proved to be a church where ministers were more ready to ask questions than to answer them.
She has two young daughters and a cat, and a nice sense of humor. "Ed once described me as 'not quite'. My eyes aren't quite brown, not quite hazel. My hair's not quite black. My body's not quite fashionably thin - I have boobs that make 'dartless' clothing a joke. I'm not quite pretty, although I suspect this never deterred a man who only saw the boobs anyway." She also has "not quite curly hair, which falls not quite to my shoulders".
She has learnt that she is expected to be an "unpaid assistant minister. Also the carrier of messages, the substitute sexton, the extra pair of hands in the church kitchen, and the woman most likely to plunk out hymns on the piano when Esther has the flu. As a bone-deep feminist every part of me knows I should be outraged, but secretly, I enjoy this. It's just that kind of church and town". Luckily she is is terminally curious and seems "to have a talent for finding murderers". It makes "a pleasant little break from the hard work of real life".
Emilie Richards (real name: Emilie McGee, or, according to her husband, Terry McGee) began writing in 1983, after the birth of her fourth child, and as she had a Master's degree in family counseling and experience as a counselor, her first books were romantic novels, then came family stories. After writing over 50 novels, she published her first mystery novel about a minister's wife in 2005. This was the first book in in the Ministry is Murder series but was not intended to be inspirational in the traditional sense, but then she "believes that inspiration can come from many different sources".
As a minister's wife herself, she was well qualified for the task. She has lived in Florida, California, Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and now Northern Virginia, where her husband, Rev Michael R McGee, is Senior Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church, Arlington, a large, urban church on the East Coast.
She says she has not modelled Aggie's family on her own, although Aggie shares something of her own humor and doggedness. She explains that "Of course her characters and the Consolidated Community Church are nothing at all like the real churches she's been part of and the people she's known there. Who would believe the real stuff?"
Blessed is the Busybody (2005)
It is the minister's ever-resourceful wife, Aggie, who has to come to his rescue and it is she who tells the story throughout. She is full of humor, as when she describes her disasterous PowerPoint presentation on the history of her church: "Somehow the multiple images carefully distributed on each side had piled up like a car wreck. One slide after another. Distorted beyond redemption, although I could have sworn that in the middle of one was a photograph of my daughters playing in the sprinkler, followed closely by one of me giving birth. It couldn't be. I went to what was supposed to be the final slide, the opening service of this church year with Ed at the front of the sanctuary and several adorable little boys dressed up and standing beside him to light our chalice. Instead this slide was a photograph of me in my slinkiest black dress, my hair pushed up in one hand, a shoulder strap slipping down my arm, a come-hither look in my eyes."
At first Detective Sergeant Roussos does not seem to appreciate her help: "Stay out of this. I can't say it more clearly."
There are still those in the church who want to get rid of Ed. "The point is," she is told by some church members, "this church has not been the same since your husband arrived".
It all works up to a dramatic climax where crooked politicians are foiled, and Aggie gets kidnapped and almost murdered. But the climax includes rather too many pages of explanation from her would-be murderer - and the suspense would be stronger if you weren't absolutely certain that she was going to be rescued. The book is at its best when Aggie's sense of humor is given free rein. Where would a minister's wife be without it?
Let There Be Suspects (2006)
But, as a surprise, she's also brought along their dreadful former foster sister, Ginger, the ex-TV cookery star who doesn't know anything about cookery, who makes enemies wherever she goes. All this gets the story off to a lively start, with plenty of fun and humor. This is the author's great strength. There are particularly lively descriptions of Aggie's two young daughters, almost teenage Denny, and younger Teddy. It is Teddy who, having been told on the school playground that there was no Santa Claus, is now "skeptical about everything", from the existence of angels to that of God. But when Ginger gets murdered, the less-than-gripping murder plot takes over and it all gets rather less interesting.
Aggie's husband Ed is now in his second year as minister at Emerald Springs. He enjoys getting into theological debates. Last year he used the Cotton Patch version of the New Testament "in which Jesus is born in Gainesville, Georgia. He still gets questions about this". For Aggie too, religion really matters: "Our church is nearly as old as the town of Emerald Springs. Old churches of every demination have a special feel, as if generations of prayers and hymns still echo silently. I think of the people who have come to this sanctuary at times of sorrow and joy, as a step towards moving on to a new phase of their lives. I feel honored to be in their company."
Sister Sid (short for Obsidian), long persecuted by Ginger, becomes the main suspect. Aggie (short for Agarte - their mother Junie had chosen their names at a time when she was into precious stones) helps to sort out the murderer, risking her own life in the process. But then there's Detective Roussos ("one of the most attractive men I've ever known, in a brooding Greek fisherman sort of way") to come to the rescue. It all makes an easy read. Pity there had to be a murder to get in the way of the fun!
Beware False Profits (2007)
As usual it is Aggie who tells the story with her usual panache: "I update the arcades, throw rip-roaring holiday open houses, and find naked bodies on the parsonage porch." Unfortunately, though, she also does a great deal of talking so it all moves along at a very leisurely pace and, even when she starts searching through other people's possessions, or there is a major fire, there is little sense of excitement. You can never believe that her life is in danger or how close she'd come "to either being reborn as a chipmunk or chatting with St Peter". It is good that the author does not take herself too seriously, as when she writes, "Maura and Joe Wagner lived in a perfect Cape Cod on a perfect street in Emerald Springs. Using perfect twice in the same sentence doesn't begin to point out the, well, picture-perfect, storybook setting for their lives."
Aggie's highly unconventional mother Junie, whom she is helping to set up a quilt shop in the town, continues to entertain, as when she dresses up as a fortune teller for the local "Mayday!" celebrations: She "wore a black pleated skirt that was long enough to hide all traces of her bright purple toenails. This was too bad because the purple exactly matched her hip-length velvet tunic, which in turn was nearly hidden by an assortment of gold and silver chains heavy with suns, moons and stars."
She tells Aggie's six-year-old daughter Teddy, "If you get bored, precious, you can tell fortunes with me .... You can sit under the table. We'll put a cloth over it, and you can hide. Then every once in a while you can lift the table and make ghostly noises, like there's a spirit haunting the tent."
But Maura and Joe's young son Tyler's diabetes is realistically described and you wonder whether this could be based on first hand experience, especially when there is a description of how some of his schoolmates react to his illness. As Deena, Aggie's almost teenage daughter, puts it: "Everybody acts like they are going to catch it. Like I'm going to catch it if I hang out with him."
However, the denoument is all too predictable and, although parts of the book are amusing enough, there really is not enough action to hold the interest throughout.
A Lie for a Lie (2009)
It makes an entertaining story, full of well-drawn and lively characters (such as Miss Emma who "is approximately a hundred years old, and she's been quilting for ninety-nine of them. She moves as rapidly as a shallow creek during a deep freeze, but she can answer any question") and such happy inventions as Sister Nora's Inspirational Tent Show, that Aggie abbreviates to SNITS with the comment, "It could be worse. She could have called it Nora's Uplifting Tent Show. NUTS."
It is Nora who tells her, "The world is coming to an end very soon. We are destroying the environment and the result will be a catastrophe. I've negotiated with God because I firmly believe the world a better place than He does. So he's giving us one more chance. And the people of Emerald Springs have been chosen to provide him with proof." Her new inspirational circus show was offering "interesting if peculiar re-enactments of old Testament stories. Daniel in the lion's den was an obvious choice, of course, performed by an excellent lion tamer and all the big cats. I'd heard a rumour that the new show was a retelling of Moses and the Israelites escaping from Egypt. I was hoping this wasn't true. I didn't want to see the ten plagues in living color under a circus tent." The idea seems full of comic potential, and it is a pity that Nora gets arrested before she has as an opportunity to develop her plan further.
The dreadful Grady Barber is another bright invention,and it was an entertaining idea to make Aggie his new assistant. It is after she finds his dead body that Aggie's old antagonist Detective Kirkor Roussos arrives on the scene. "He's a dark-haired, dark-eyed Greek American hunk who would be my heart-throb of choice were I not happily married to Ed - which I am. So Roussos and I hold a different place in each other's hearts. I make his life miserable by sticking my nose where it doesn't belong, and he does everything he can to stop me." It is to him that Aggie explains, "Some religions believe in divine revelation, in modern day prophecy and people talking directly to God. Sister Nora's firmly in that camp. Then there are others who are more focused on facts we can prove, along with listening to that still, small voice inside us and doing good while we're here. Our church is firmly in that camp."
Aggie's daughters. Deena and Teddy are now aged 13 and 8. Deena (as one of the "Price Girls") gets nowhere in the talent show and sulks after her father uses this unhappy episode to make a point in one of his sermons - but Aggie still needs her help on the computer.
Most of it is great fun, with particularly amusing descriptions of the local talent show - and there's even at attempt at murder-by-elephant. The ending, unfortunately, is rather prolonged (there's an unnecessarily long explanation by the murderer), but, even so, this book, by probably the best of the "cozy" writers, is to be recommended. At least neither the heroine nor the author takes herself too seriously.
A Truth for a Truth (2010)
Aggie once again proves herself to be a determined detective even if at first she wrongly identifies the murderer. As usual she quite unnecessarily keeps things from the police and prefers to imperil her own life by herself confronting the criminal. It all leads up to a highly improbable, even ludicrous finale in which she pursues the killer's boat on a jet ski, blithely telling her companion, "Stay here, Luce, and don't try to follow. They're tricky, and somebody has to tell the cops what's up."
The bossy Hildy's attempts turn Aggie into her idea of a minister's dutiful wife are amusing enough, and Aggy's relationship with her 14-year-old daughter Deena is convincingly described, as when Aggie is worried that Deena might be forming a dangerous relationship with her teacher:
Another amusing and arresting domestic confrontation occurs when Aggie finally gets round to standing up for herself and tells Hildy off: “Ed and I live in the parsonage now. And we deserve to have a say in what happens inside it! ... You don't live there any more, Hilda. It's not your house. It's mine. You have a different life now. It can be a great one if you let it. But this life is mine and I want it back. I don't want you choosing my floors. I don't want you telling me how to be a good minister's wife. I don't want you cutting the crusts off my bread! My bread is wonderful. People love my bread, crusts and all."
But unfortunately the story is fairly run-of-the-mill. There's a great deal of talk, although some of it such as the confrontation between Hildy and the woman who turns out to be her dead husband's mistress are entertaining enough, but all the gossip is really no substitute for exciting action. And even such events as a major fire are described in a distinctly cozy manner --but then that is the author's deliberately chosen style. But it is not one of her most entertaining plots.
|The cover successfully captures some of the humor of the book.|