|Sister Justicia Marie
(creator: James Scott Bell)
|Sister Justicia Marie was "a vigilante nun" who aimed to clean up the streets of Los Angeles. A famous child star, she had taken to "drugs and alcohol and rampaging pleasures of the flesh" which had destroyed her movie career but then one day she had had a strange mystical experience in which "light bounced off the ocean and beamed directly into her soul", she felt "alive with electricity" and was inspired to join the (Benedictine) Sisters of Abundant Mercy.
When we first meet her, she is 30 years old and had been a nun for eight years, but she retains her fierce individualism and skill in the martial arts. Indeed when it comes to violence she is "one crazy nun", ready to take on anybody. Not surprisingly this leads to increasing trouble with her Mother Superior who would like to see her time as a nun come to an end.
James Scott Bell (1954 - ) graduated from Taft High School then went on to study film at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he took the opportunity to study writing with Raymond Carver. He subsequently spent some time working as an actor before reading law at the University of Southern California Law School where he graduated with honors.
While working as a lawyer, he began writing screenplays and subsequently turned to fiction. His short fiction includes the self-published vigilante nun series of which the first was Force of Habit (reviewed below). He has written numerous other books and, under the pen name of K. Bennett, is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series. He has taught novel writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous conferences in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. He now writes and lectures full time and lives in Los Angeles.
Force of Habit (2012)
Force of Habit describes how, when a nun is viciously attacked, Sister Justicia (usually known as just Sister J) takes it upon herself to find out what happened. Neither the police nor her Mother Superior at St Cecilia's approve of what she's doing, but nothing can stop her getting actively involved in physical fighting or gunplay. So she is a distinctly implausible nun - but she is an interesting and entertaining character nevertheless, as is her Mother Superior, Sister Sarah, who had been "a graduate of the Yale Divinity School" and "liked to talk in post-modern academic jargon," saying things like "Your paradigm is objectionable, virtually post-semantic." You can are see why, to Sister J, "her words always sounded like an oral dissertation by the Mad Hatter."
The book gets off to an arresting start with the sentence, "Sister Justicia Marie thought it was going to be a beautiful day in LA, full of mercy and grace, until she had to break a man's finger at lunch." The violence - and the humor - continue throughout.
When confronted by two armed gunmen, Sister J "was imbued with a power from on high" so she "kneed Reggie in the groin and pointed the gun at the other's leg. And fired ..... As the gunman screeched in pain, Sister J lunged forward and with a click from her nun-shoed leg she knocked the gun from his hand. He didn't seem to care as he crumbled to the ground, grabbing his exploded knee. Blood poured onto the floor. Reggie squirmed and moaned behind."
"I'm sorry," she said to the man with only one knee. "Please forgive me."
And so it goes on until she eventually confronts the attacker - who doesn't really stand much of a chance against her!
"I think," her priest told her in the confessional, "you might be mad." But it is a sort of inspired madness. "It is God's will," she tells Sister Sarah, "I believe, to stop someone from inflicting harm and pain may be used to accomplish this. Pain is good. Does did not God inflict pain on the nation of Israel for its ultimate good?"
It is only a novella (with no division into chapters) but the interest is held right to the end, so that it makes a fast moving, interesting and amusing read. And you don't have to take it at all seriously (there's even a thug who calls himself the Pope of Los Angeles - he didn't just call himself the Pope, because that, he said, would be over-ambitious). I look forward to reading the remaining books in the series.
Force of Habit 2: And Then There Were Nuns (2013)
And Then There Were Nuns describes how Sister Justicia Marie, rogue nun, is still "determined to love her enemies by kicking their butts." She "felt she was being called by God to stop violent people, using violence herself if necessary. She thought she could justify that theologically, but old Father Dom, her confessor, was not so down with the idea. In fact, he thought she might be going nuts." So it is no wonder that she manages to upset not only Father Dom but Sister Sarah, her superior at St. Cecelia's school, and the criminal boss who called himself the Pope of Los Angeles, not to mention the thugs and criminals that she enjoyed beating up.
Once on the trail, she never dreams of giving up. In the story, having been knocked unconscious by a blow to the back of the head, she is determined to identify her attacker. And so she does - even though it ends unfortunately, with her having to kill him. She does not really have a prayer life or anything like that, but when criminals tell her that they do not believe in God, she knows to reply, "He believes in you."
It all ends up with her having to leave the monastery (Father Dom's final words of advice to her were, "Try not to kill anyone else") and setting up a new order of her own, to be called Sisters of Perpetual Justice. Of course, in real life, things can be just a little more complicated than that!
The author explains that his main aim is entertainment. He says that he did not know much about nuns when he started but wanted to be respectful. He has little concern for the actualities of convent life: Sister J seemed to have all the time in the world to do anything she liked. But he has succeeded in producing another entertaining if very short novelette. A pity that a few pages are marred by suddenly changing font sizes. But it makes a fast moving story that once again holds the interest.
Force of Habit 3: Nun the Wiser
Nun the Wiser describes how Sister J, and her young companion Sister Xuan, have started a new order, The Sisters of Perpetual Justice. Now they're not only running a shelter for the homeless, but eager and willing to tackle criminals on the streets. When the shocking murder of one of Sister J's benefactors takes place in the grounds of the shelter, a new threat emerges, one that has a very clear message for the nuns: "There is going to be hell to pay, and hell always collects."
The story starts with a comic confessional in which Sister J admits to beating up a street thug, much to the consternation of the long-suffering Father Dom. Then she shows young Sister Xuan how to kick a dummy in the "'juevos ranchedros". "Your job," she tells her, "is to incapacitate the act of evil." And so the violence goes on and on. The author seems to enjoy describing it, but for the reader it gets increasingly repetitive, as when Sister J happily broke one "man's arm at the elbow, doing a reverse nutcracker move that snapped the joint like a chicken wing. He would not be doing any shooting .... for some time to come. Sister J let go and kicked the other man in the face as he was coming into shooting position ...."
The longest fight of all is with an illusionist's assistant that involves the tricks of her trade including a performing puma and a working guillotine! There are also amusing characters such as a bullying chat show host and an old Shakespearean actor who keeps quoting from the Bard and gets wrongfully arrested. Once again the author seemed to be enjoying himself, but you may begin to wonder if he might be running out of steam.
Force of Habit 4: The Nun Also Rises
The mixture is much as before and is all set in North Hollywood. Sister J is as violent as ever and ready to take on anyone, and, skilled as she is in the martial arts, you never doubt that the toughest of thugs stands no chance against her, so they end up with broken arms, kicks in the juevos rancheros (Sister J's code for "a man's classified ads") or even lying dead on the ground. No wonder she is known as the "kick-butt nun".
She regarded stopping a criminal, however violently, as "an act of mercy, for both the potential victim and the potential felon". However, that is not how her local Cardinal sees it, and he decides she must be sent away for a year for, as he tells her, "Kick-butt is not something we want associated with Catholic doctrine". But then when a group of gun-toting black masked hooligans break up a cathedral mass and she challenges the leader to single combat, he has second thoughts.
The last of the stories, Nun Too Soon, is set in the summer of 2000 when there is a national pandemic and Sister J gets into trouble with the police because people on the roof of her refuge are not wearing masks. The word covid is not actually used, but this must be the first reference to it in any clerical detective story.
Despite the violence, the books still make an entertaining read, enlivened by the fighting nun image (shown in the left column) that appears on almost every page, reminding us not to take any of it at all seriously.
|The cover certainly grabs the attention - as does the central character.|