Sister Margaret

(creator: Isaac Morris)

Isaac Morris
Sister Margaret (previously Margaret Donovan) had followed her father's career in the police and had become a very tough, dedicated and successful sheriff's duputy when a colleague deputy had been brutally murdered. Struggling to find meaning amidst chaos, she had returned to the faith in which she had been raised. A friendship with a local Dominican nun motivated her to hand in her badge and gun and devote her life to the convent.

She already had a degree in English literature and criminal justice from Illinois College so was encouraged by the convent to enrol for the Master's program at St Louis University while she was still teaching theology at St Dominic's. She had spent five years in the convent and, when we first meet her, was reaching the end of the two-year "period of discernment, a time during which she and the community would determine whether she was suited to the religious life". She will soon have to decide about her future, but it is all complicated by the fact that she has been "lent" back to the police to help them solve the mystery of two murdered students. So, still dressed as a nun, but with a deputy's badge in her wallet, she once again faces up to the challenge of the outside world.

The author sees her as "a flawed individual who struggles to maintain her vocation in a world where faith has gone by the wayside. Her struggle with criminality mirrors her own struggle with sin and redemption."

Isaac Martin "Marty" Morris studied philosophy at the Diocesan Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Mac Murray College, and received his M.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Butler University. He was unable to find a publisher (or even more important nowadays, an agent) for The Absence of Goodness (see review below) so published it himself. He is a devoted Roman Catholic and describes himself as "deeply religious". He has worked for the state of Illinois since 1979 and has had much writing experience, producing numerous speeches and articles as part of his work for the Insurance Dept. Now retired, he is still an adjunct instructor in Philosophy and Humanities at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Ilinois. He is married with seven grandchildren.

The Absence of Goodness (2010)
The Absence of Goodness
describes how, in Springfield, Illinois, in 2007, Margaret is poised to make her final profession and take the veil, when she learns of the murder of two students. Her former police boss asks her to help him to solve the killings. Sister Agnes at the convent recognises that this is “a somewhat unorthodox request" but is surprisingly ready to let her go: “I might add that it would give me great comfort to know that you would be able to provide assistance, provided of course that there would be no threat to your well-being."

At the police station, she is equipped with a cell phone and a gun. “Oh, that will go nicely with my crucifix," she comments. She is assigned to work with Detective Bill Templeton whom she first regards as “a cocky little shit". Indeed she finds him so exasperating that at one point, “casting aside all pretense of her new station in life", she tells him, "Fuck off, Templeton." Yet, “as obnoxious and as maddening as the man was, there was something about him that attracted her." She prays long and hard as she realises that what she really wants to do is make love to him.

Margaret soon links the recent murders with a thirty-year-old cold-case slaying of another Saint Dominic's student. She also realizes that the first murder had been entangled in a cover-up designed to protect some influential people. Working to identify the killer, her burdens escalate. Another child is on the killer's hit list, and she has to cope with her growing relationship with Bill Templeton. Realizing she makes bad choices more often then she would like, Margaret desperately attempts to solve the murders and reconcile her spiritual and secular lives.

The question of the existence of evil comes up again and again: it was while she was still teaching she had explained to her class that “St Augustine taught that evil isn't a thing that exists. It has no substance; it isn't something solid or real, like the boogey man. it is the absence of something." It is all due to "the lack of goodness". But as her good friend and adviser Sister Theodora later tells her, “Evil isn't the problem. Evil is an incontestable and omnipresent fact of our existence. I think we need to change the question around a bit. The question shouldn't revolve around how we explain evil, but rather how we explain goodness. The goodness that pops up out of nowhere. That is what we must focus on. That is where we find God." Margaret felt she “was having a difficult time finding that at the moment. But she hoped Sister Theodora was right." But her real problem was, “Why, if God is good, couldn't human beings sense it any more?" Then she discovers that Sister Theodora is dying from cancer. As for evil, “it's real, and palpable, and frightening. And the worst part is, it is in each of us."

The storytelling is confusing at times and the intricacies of the plot do not always hold attention, but the central theme of Margaret's dilemma as she tries to work out her future, set against the pain and evil she sees all around her, certainly hold the attention. The author himself sees the book as "more than just a crime novel .... It is really a story about a young woman and her search for her own life's meaning." And so it is.

There is a long but interesting video interview (October 2010) with the author on You Tube: see part one and part two. There is liitle else about him on the web beyond a brief biographical summary on the zoominfo site.

The book is available as a hardback or on Kindle, although my Kindle copy had a lot of very odd spacing that did not make reading any easier:

Along the River Road (2012)
Along the River Road sees nearly 40 year old Sister Margaret Donovan working as parish administrator (acting almost as a priest) for a small congregation in rural southern Illinois in 2009, when Father Corrigan, an elderly and arrogant priest, is assigned to say mass on Sundays. Neither Margaret (who does not take kindly to being asked if she ever has "impure thoughts") nor anyone else takes to him. Indeed some in the church are appalled to recognize him as a former child abuser. A suicide in the parish alerts Margaret to something awry, but she gets no help from her diocese: they claim not to know a thing. But when Father Corrigan disappears, Margaret uncovers his secrets buried in the past, including a link to a hideous murder-suicide that occurred forty years earlier.

Although the story is told by several different narrators, it all holds together very well. Margaret has real problems of her own and "found herself drinking more and more merlot". She is troubled by erotic dreams about her one-time lover Detective Bill Templeton (now her local Chief of Detectives), so "prayed for God to help her in her struggle to overcome concupiscence. Somehow, saying that word made her want to giggle. But the problem wasn't funny - just the word. This was, after all, the life she had chosen. This was one of the major battles she had to win if she was to keep her vows."

As Vergil, the church's mentally handicapped odd-job man (employed more out of charity than necessity), used to put it: "Concup - There's that word I could never say that the priests used to mumble about. So I just say cucumbers. We must fight cucumbers, the attraction of cucumbers. It will drag you into hell. They are bad. They make a person bad. No cucumbers." But, by the end of the book, Margaret has accepted what she must do about both her love for Bill and her finally admitted alcoholism.

It makes a tough, down to earth, realistic and sometimes very explicit story that certainly holds the interest. It seems surprising that the author had to self-publish it.

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


The Absence of Goodness cover
The book is self-published but has a handsome cover.
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