Rev James Burton
(creator: Cecil Murphey)

Cecil Murphey
Rev Dr James Burton (who liked to be called just Burton) is the minister of a small church at Riverdale in Clayton County in Atlanta. He had previously been “the pastor of a large church in Oklahoma. It started small – just a little more than sixty people. But it grew and grew, and after four years, we had nearly three thousand. That's when I left." He preferred a small church where he could know everyone by name and act as a real shepherd to them. He had never married because, “Jesus Christ is the most important thing in the world to me. I couldn't – not ever -- get serious about anyone who didn't share my beliefs.”

According to his friend and admirer Julie, “Besides his perfect teeth, Burton is all-around good-looking . I liked his dark eyes and those fabulous dark curls. He had two short ringlets right in the middle of his forehead. He was trim, and his arms made him look like a weight lifter. She also thought that “his manner was so gentle, he would have made an excellent therapist.” People were very ready to open up to him, and he had the shrewdness to see below the surface and understand their real needs.

Cecil (Cec) Murphey (1933 - ) holds bachelor’s degrees in education and religious education, as well as master’s degrees in education and theology. He served in the navy and worked as a missionary in Africa for six years. He then became pastor of the small Riverdale Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. He also worked as a hospital chaplain. At the age of fifty, he became a full-time writer and speaker, and is the author or co-author of more than a hundred books, including the best-selling 90 Minutes in Heaven, ghostwritten for Don Piper, a Baptist minister who died then returned to life after, he said, witnessing heaven. He has more recently branched out into fiction, including the "cozy mysteries" described below.

Everybody Loved Roger Harden (2008)
Everybody Loved Roger Harden describes how psychologist Julie West and Reverend James Burton arrive late for dinner on Palm Island - but just in time to discover their host, billionaire Roger Harden, murdered. Ten possible suspects share close quarters on the secluded island, all of them with deep secrets and sufficient motive to have wanted the wealthy "benefactor" dead. Julie and Burton soon start to feel an attraction for each other - but Burton tells her that there is no way he can develop a relationship with an unbeliever.

The setting is, as one of the characters and comments, strongly reminiscent of Agatha Christie's And Then There were None (original English title Ten Little Niggers) but the denoument is quite different - and a lot less convincing. Julie is the narrator for most of the book except for some chapters written by Burton - an experiment that the author dropped in the next two books, leaving all the narration to Julie.

As telephone communication to the mainland has been lost, Burton somehow appoints himself to lead an investigation into what has happened. As he tells Roger's wife Amanda, “If you want to talk about it now, it might make it easier for you later on when the police come.” So she tells him, in a slightly stilted way, "I had an extremely miserable life with Roger. For years I've been careful to maintain a charade and mask my unhappiness." Then she explains that he had told her why he had invited the guests: "I have something significant – something I have to tell you and the others. I want to make my announcement once and all of you at the same time.”

Everyone opens up to Burton, with all that they say reported, word for word, by the observant Julie. She explains that “I'm writing down everything so I can remember it if it comes to trial.” How she remembers exactly what everyone said in such remarkable detail is not explained. However, it turns out that nearly all the guests had guilty secrets which Roger had used to exert his power over them and control their lives. This does not sound any too likely. But what is most unlikely of all is Roger's motive for inviting all his victims to his island, as explained in a message that he leaves them: "I became a believer. but I wanted to do more than believe. Because I believed, I wanted my life to change .... I ask you to forgive me. I have been a tyrant and I have been evil. I know God has raised my sins, and I plead with you to forgive me.”

The story really does not compare with Agatha Christie's original, and its appeal must surely be limited to those for whom the message is all that matters.

Everybody Wanted Room 623 (2008)
Everybody Wanted Room 623 is set a few months after the previous book. Psychologist (and director of a mental health center) Julie West arrives at Cartledge Inn in response to an urgent call from Stefan Lauber, one of her clients and a supposedly reformed criminal recently released from prison. A near-hysterical desk clerk tells her that Lauber has been murdered in his room -- room 623. According to the clerk, everybody now keeps asking for that room. The police have already examined the scene, but other visitors have broken in and ransacked the place. Could it be anything to do with some missing diamonds? Pastor James Burton teams up with her to solve the mystery.

Julie realises that she really likes Burton, "that curly-haired preacher". But he won't even kiss her if "I don't love his God" - and "he's so likeable. And kind. Okay - and he's cute - really cute. He's no hunk but I'd settle for those dark, blue eyes, and I'd love to run my fingers through those soft, dark brown curls." Straight out of romantic fiction, isn't he? But then the cover promises "Mystery and Romance - with a Southern accent!". However, Burton tells her, "I could never marry a non-Christian." But he prays for her every day, and eventually, she tells us, "I was hooked. I believed, and I had no idea how that had taken place."

The pair of them don't seem particularly quick to pick up clues, and police detective Ollie Viktor seems quite happy to chat with them instead of rushing to the scene of crime. He then lets them sit in on his interrogations and even join in the questioning. Although "uptight and explosive", he surprisingly allows Burton to tell him to stop bullying a suspect. He had been a college classmate of Burton's but Julie had decided she "didn't like him as a person", and is suspicious of him thnroughout..

It turns out that once again, an ex-criminal had got born again and decided he wanted "to make full restitution for all his crimes". And, determined to thwart him was a man who liked to be called Mastermind - and between them, Julie and Burton unmask his identity. But it won't come as much of a surprise to the reader.

Julie does most of the detective work, but it is Burton who sees the Biblical significance of the number 623 with which the dead man seems to have been obsessed - and then there is a happy ending as Burton actually gives her a hug and kisses her. But it all seems very unreal.

Everybody Called Her a Saint (2008)
Everybody Called Her a Saint
raises the question as to who would want to kill Julie's friend, the saintly psychiatrist Twila Belk. Especially since she had footed the bill for an Antartica cruise with 48 of her "closest friends" including (believe it or not) her own clients. But then a search team discovers the body of the murdered benefactress on Brown Bluff Island.

Rev James Burton (with his "movie-star teeth") and psychologist Julie had almost got engaged but Burton had had to confess to her, "I have a secret. It's something I've never told anyone else." And Julie is so horrified by it that since then they are not even on speaking terms. So now it's her turn to have nothing to do with him. Not exactly mutual love in action. But can their love and admiration for a dear, departed friend allow them to set aside their animosities long enough to bring Twila's killer to justice? You bet it can. And their first clue comes when they discover that a number of Twila's guests on the ship were to have been featured in her book of case studies.

This story gains greatly from its fascinating setting: the cruise ship and Antarctica, and the details (such as how a tags system is meant to ensure that no-one gets left behind on the snowy wastes, and an explanation of how penguins usually have only two chicks and "in years when the fish supply is low, they feed one check and push away the other, which eventually dies") make interesting reading. So this is the most appealing of the three books. It is still very novelettish, though, as when Julie tells us, "I wore flat shoes. I told myself it was because heels were totally out of place on such a trip – which they were – but it also brought my height down so that I was less than an inch taller than Burton – I mean, if we ever stood next to each other again.” And she still hankers after "that gorgeous heart-melting smile". But their relationship with each other, and our knowledge from the start that Twila Belk is in for a sticky ending, help to maintain the interest.

It is Julie who does most of the detection in this story,. She has taken to having conversations about it to herself. As she explains, “Sometimes I talk out loud to myself, especially when I feel confused. I also answer myself, which to most people must sound strange, but that's who I am.” She also has to keep reminding yourself that she is not a character in detective fiction as when she tells us he that “This honestly sounds like the conclusion of Diagnosis: Murder or Murder, She Wrote where they corner a criminal and he cries out something like 'You have to believe me because I didn't mean ....,' or some silly babble. It's a clear, neat ending for a TV script that has a forty-eight-minute time length of each episode. Life is usually not so clear, however in this case ....". She emerges out of all this as a slightly silly and immature person, compared with the gravitas of Burton who often seems to be talking for the author, whose similarities with him include an abusive father.

There is not all that much real humor in these stories, but when Burton searches through the books in Twila's cabin, he finds copies of 90 minutes in Heaven and other books that were actually written by the author!

As before, the arch villain turns out to be whom you would expect, as he'd been previously identified by Julie as being "a bit creepy" or, as she describes him when she talks to herself (!), a person with "borderline personality disorder".

All the interviews with passengers soon start to get a bit tedious, and when Burton beams, "Jesus Christ is a friend, my best and truest friend,” he sounds more than a little smug. And the eventual explanation of Burton's guilty secret seems absurd. But, once he has confessed all to his parents, Julie ends her account with, "Surely nothing would mar our happiness – not even another murder.” So even she does not take all it too seriously - and she's surely right not to do so.

The author has his own website and there is an informative Wikipedia entry.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Everybody's Suspect in Georgia cover
All three of the novels reviewed are included in this convenient omnibus edition. The publisher, Barbour, declares that its "mission is to publish and distribute inspirational products offering exceptional value and biblical encouragement to the masses."
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