Gracie Parks

(authors: Eileen M Berger, Nicola Furlong, Roberta Updegraff)

Gracie Parks, when we first meet her, is a five-foot-four red haired widow aged 60 plus, who lives in Willow Bend, Indiana, and still much misses husband, Elmo, who had been killed in an accident five years before. She is an enthusiastic member of the choir at Eternal Hope Community Church, of which she was to became assistant choir director. She also teaches at Sunday School. She has a son, Arlen, but he and his family live in New York so, in his absence she had offered a home to old Uncle Milty. She also looks after a seven-year-old cat called Gooseberry. She "liked preparing meals and planning parties" and much enjoyed reading mystery stories for, as she points out, "A good mystery is refreshing; in what other genre can you routinely find right triumphing over wrong in today's world?" She is much motivated by her religious beliefs and, as Uncle Miltie tells her, "You're one terrific friend to many people."

Eileen M(ae) Berger (1927 - 2011) held a Bachelor of Science degree from Bucknell University and a Master of Science from Temple University and was a medical technologist for 25 years. She was a deaconess at Hughesville Baptist Church where she was a Sunday school teacher and sang in the church choir. She became president of American Baptist Women. She also taught in workshops, colleges and writers' conferences. In addition to The Highly Suspicious Halo, reviewed below, she wrote three further books in the Choir Mysteries series and some nine other books. She was the mother of three grown children (one of whom became a pastor), and lived with her husband Robert in Hughesville, Pennsylvania, where they ran a "Choose-and-cut" Christmas tree farm. Her husband had previously been a pastor for many years at Hughesville, Pennsylvania, but we are told that, "None of Eileen's real-life situations are reflected in her books, which are entirely fiction".
There is hardly anything about the author on the web beyond an obituary page. A list of her books can be found on the fantasticfiction site

Nicola Furlong (1957? - ) was born in Edmonton in Canada and raised in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. She was awarded a BA in Fine Art and Psychology at Carleton University. She then worked for the Federal Government in Ontario/Quebec. She says that when she is not playing hockey, growing blue poppies or eating chocolate fudge, she "pens women's fiction and mystery novels, creates interactive children's books for the iPad, podcasts about genre writing, publishes ebooks and produces promotional book trailers." She is the author of six of the Church Choir mysteries (including The Angel's Secret, reviewed below), and has written guides to mystery writing, self publication and gardening. She admits to being a "shameless self-promoter", and modestly describes one of her books as "crackling with wit and suspense". She lives in Sidney, a small town on southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
She has her own website and there is an informative article about her on the Senior Living site.

Roberta ("Bobbi") Updegraff (1954? - ) says that, like Gracie, she loves homemaking and cooking. Born in Syracuse, New York, Roberta's childhood as a military brat was spent in Madrid, Spain as well as at Air Force bases in the United States. She has been married to her high school sweetheart for some 40 years and they have three children. She worked as a substitute teacher at Williamsport High School in Pennsylvania and taught everything from auto mechanics to orchestra. She is also a Sunday school teacher and volunteer youth leader and has done much work with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. She wrote six of the Church Choir Mysteries, including The Baffling Bequest, reviewed below.
She gives inspirational talks and has her own
web site. There is a list of her books on the fantasticfiction site.

Church Choir Mysteries: The Highly Suspicious Halo (2000)
The Highly Suspicious Halo (by Eileen M Berger) Is the first of 24 titles that appeared in the Church Choir Mysteries series, published by Guideposts between 2000 and 2006, written by three different authors, and apparently sold on a subscription basis.

It tells how Gracie Parks becomes involved in an improbable mystery in her own choir: Amy Cantrell, a 17-year-old choir member, suddenly becomes sick, possibly poisoned. So the church's prayer chain gets going. Soon Amy seems to be getting better - until she mysteriously disappears from the hospital. Gracie tries to get to the bottom of it, wondering if she had gone off with a mysterious boyfriend. The police too are involved, and chief Herb who was also a member of Eternal Hope Church, tells her, "I, personally, have being doing a whale of a lot of praying for her and for all of you – and suggest you do likewise." So we may be sure everything will be all right.

It is a truly cozy little story, complete with cute drawings of a cat at the start of each chapter, and a recipe page for Snickerdoodles at the end of the book, with Gracie ever conscious of "those many kernels of blessings all around her". When another widow tells her that she must get lonely, she replies, "If you mean missing Elmo (her husband who had died 5 years before), of course I do, and always will. But I don't wallow in it, dear friend. There are too many things in life – good things, I'll have you know – for me to lose out on if I allow myself to stay in the dumps!" So she remains relentlessly cheerful throughout. To her even decrepit old Uncle Miltie is "a lovable lump" and his presence in her house continues to be "a blessing". Her main worry is with conducting her church choir preparing for a singing contest against seven other churches. Their party piece is Help Me to See Thee, Lord which was actually written by the author herself. It includes the following distinctly awkward lines:
"In the beauty of your world and in a baby's smile,
Whether I am far away or at home for a while,
whether I am rich or poor, with pennies or a hoard,
Whatever my condition, help me to see Thee, Lord."

Her one uncharitable thought is directed against fellow choir member Estelle with her "sugar-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth persona" that gave Gracie a mental picture of her "reaching her arm up in an annoying manner, adjusting her halo, which she so assiduously tried to keep polished." So there's little doubt who is going to be under suspicion!

There are even hints of possible romance when she drops in on her old friend Rocky who runs the local newspaper.
" 'Welcome!' he came around the desk to hold both of her hands in his for a moment before seating her in one of the two straight chairs. He took the other, instead of going back to his own. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"
She gave a pretend-frown. "Can't I just drop in to say hello?"
'Any time you choose, Gracie. You know you're always welcome.' He gave her a slow, warm smile." But that's about as far as their relationship goes.

After a brief mention of Guideposts magazine that happens to be lying on a table in the hospital lobby, it all ends with a lengthy and rather boring conversation in which Amy explains all. It seems a pity that the author had not drawn more heavily on her own experiences - surely they couldn't all have been quite as cozy as this.

The Angel's Secret (2001)
The Angel's Secret (by Nicola Furlong, no. 11 in the series) describes how the latest activity at Willow Bend Senior Center is pottery instruction, and even Gracie Park's octogenarian Uncle Miltie takes to it with great enthusiasm. Then Libby Simmons' bracelet goes missing and no one can find it, and Uncle Miltie's clay angels all get broken. Gracie tries to solve the mysteries while busily involved in her church's efforts to feed a hungry family for the holidays. Then a car accident on the ice lands her in the unheated home of the young family, where sensitive listening and clever sleuthing help her find out the angel's secret. Mind you, if she had read the original Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventures of the Six Napoleons, she would have known exactly why the angels had all been broken.

This had the most interesting plot of the three books in the series that I have read, and I really got quite interested In the young family that Gracie was trying to help, despite the stilted style of some of the conversations, as when young Pastor Paul says, "This annual celebration of our Lord's birth really is one of my favourite events in the church calendar. The Sunday school kids, bless their tiny hearts, reenact the miracle of the first Christmas."

And, one assumes, her target audience would enjoy her long account of the pie-making bee to which she devotes page after page, as well as the recipe for Gracie's Piquant Pork Chops.

Gracie herself Is as confident as ever that God is at hand to help her so she tells Him, "It was You who arranged for Uncle Miltie to live with me. For that, I will be eternally grateful." And when she and her friends are involved in a serious road crash in the snow, they know at once what they must do: recite the Lord's Prayer together, although Gracie is in some pain when she prays, Dearest God, I know You are ready to heal me.
But I can't do anything but feel responsible for everyone else right now. So let me get back to you on that one!

After all the odd things that have happened, Gracie realises at last, "Something wasn't right .... But I know Who I'm going to ask for guidance." She cannot but agree with her friends who pray, "Without Your watchful eye, I'm certain the accident and injuries would have been much worse. I'm sure our families and friends are very worried about us. If you could somehow let them know that we're all right, I'd be grateful. Thank you." Gracie is soon believing that God arranged it all to make them seek refuge in the house of the family that so badly needed their help. And when she comes up with a scheme for helping them, Pastor Paul tells her,"Gracie, you're absolutely amazing! How on earth did you think of it?"
She leaned back and gazed at the ceiling. 'I didn't.'
His eyes followed hers, and they both smiled."

Readng all these reassuring messages, you begin to wonder if the author was dutifully follow a set of instructions from her Guideposts publishers, especially when she even managed to get in a quote from "the latest Guideposts Magazine": Friends are like angels without any wings. Blessing our lives with the most precious things.

Although the book has its merits, by the end even God is made to seem too cozy.

The Baffling Bequest (2003)
The Baffling Bequest (by Roberta Updegraff) tells us about twin sisters Hazel and Mabel Rohleder who have lived all their long lives in Willow Bend. When Mabel dies without a will, Hazel is bereft and worried about how best to honor Hazel's wishes. Lawyer Nick Kendrick offers his help, but friend and sleuth Gracie Parks thinks there is more to it than meets the eye. With a lot of prayer and help from her friends, Gracie is determined to help Hazel celebrate her birthday - and the birthday of her dead sister - in gratitude for a life well lived - and, lo and behold, the missing will turns up.

No. 24 in the series, this is another gossipy, cozy, simplistic but basically happy little story. By now Gracie has grown increasingly pious and just has to have a brief word with God for everything to be put right. "It was clear God has made a difference in many lives by inspiring Pastor Paul (a young man adored by all the congregation) to match Eternal Hope's older and younger members." Gracie "was convinced this new endeavour was a heavenly endeavour. It not only brought people together, but gave them fresh perspectives and all with God's blessing .... God did indeed have a knack for bringing the right people together." Gracie herself is always happy to pray aloud with anyone who will allow it and never seems troubled by the slightest element of doubt.

Gracie's best friend, Marge, is equally sure of God's help. At one point she exclaims, "Oh, how wonderful! God heard our prayers."
Kathleen (the young woman to wom they were talking) informed them, "I'm not religious."
"Neither am I," Gracie said in all honesty. "Sometimes religion gets in the way of a friendship with God."
"I'm not sure I even believe in God."
Gracie was not intimidated. "God believes in you, dear."
"Why should he?" Kathleen spun around to face Gracie. "People have this idea that there's some benevolent, omnipotent being who cares for humanity. Me, I'm not convinced. Nothing I've experienced reinforces that idea. If God is anything, he's ambivalent."
Gracie glanced at Marge, who seemed equally lost for words. In the silent communication that passed between them they prayed for Kathleen. You know her heart, Lord. Help us to see her as you do.
"There's much I don't know about God." Marge stepped forward. "But what I do know about Him has changed my life …. He cares for me. He loves all of us. God listens to our prayers and answers. I know He intends our difficulties in life not to break us, but to make us stronger".
So the book lives up to the publisher's evangelical aims, but you can't help wondering if the author, who had her own first-hand experience of aid work in Honduras, might be writing down to suit her publisher's anticipated audience. Yet even Gracie who seems certain that the dead Mabel is happily living in heaven from where, in the words of the pastor, "She's looking down on us and enjoying every moment", gets as far as agreeing that "Being over the hill is a darn sight better than being under it!"

Another happy character is Uncle Miltie who still lives with her, with, of course, never a cross word between them. She even enjoys his never ending stream of old jokes and the way he shares his comedy act with young Kevin, a boy with few friends: "Did you hear what happened when the red boat and the blue ship collided? Miltie asked.
Kevin knew his cue. 'No! What happened when the red boat in the blue ship collided?'
"They were marooned!"
And so it goes on, in a mildly entertaining sort of way, leading up to a recipe for "Gracie's spaghetti pie" and a note from the publishers of Guideposts magazine promising that "When you subscribe, each month you can count on receiving exciting new evidence of God's presence, His guidance and His limitless love for all of us."

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


Eileen M Berger
The Highly Suspicious Halo cover
The cover gives a good idea of what sort of book it is. Gracie Parks is, I assume, the third from the left, the one with the pious expression and the red hair.
All the books have similar saccharine-type covers.
Nicola Furlong
Nicola Furlong
Gracie and Uncle Miltie on the cover of The Angel's Secret.
Roberta Undegraff
Roberta Undegraff
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