Saturday, October 24, 2009

Death in the Choir

What I read this week:
“Death in the Choir” might be called a “Catholic cozy,” given its charming Decatur, Georgia setting and recently widowed heroine, Francesca Bibbo, who joins the choir at St. Rita’s in order to resume her social life and find romance. Lovelorn and self-conscious about her weight (even her cat is named Tubs), Francesca quickly discovers the disharmony in the group. The catty sopranos compete for solos, and the director and the pastor are at odds over purchasing a new organ to replace the old wheezing one. When the director, Randall, appoints Francesca to be his administrative assistant and then asks her out to dinner, her lonely heart goes pitter-patter - but it seems that he has been doing this with other widows in order to make a fundraising pitch for the organ. At a rehearsal party, Randall continues to ‘play the field’ yet string along the desperate Francesca. Later that night, when she drives by his house, she sees that one of the sopranos, Patricia, has parked her car there, whereupon she loses hope of winning him. Then, in the morning, Patricia phones Francesca to report that she found the director dead. The police rule the death a suicide, but plucky Francesca suspects foul play. When she digs into the records Randall put in her care and begins to pry into his past, she discovers shocking sexual secrets about Randall and other choir members that put her in grave danger. And the handsome police officer she’s been falling for may not be able to save her in time.
Lorraine Murray delivers an entertaining puzzle-mystery with a likeable protagonist who is a practicing Catholic in a realistic parish that has its flaws, just like Francesca. The book can be forgiven its conveniently unlocked doors and chance meetings for the way it builds upon an innocent search for romance and remarriage toward a mystery involving divorce and deviance. Lighthearted and ‘safe’ at first, the story turns dark and dangerous in its page-turning conclusion.
The story is respectful of Catholic Church traditions and practices, and at the same time brutally honest about the fallen natures of its members. Thankfully, the priests are portrayed as real men with their own troubles, but not bad: the weary senior pastor longs for a stiff drink and a long smoke he has been denying himself, and the upstart young associate is angular and sternly orthodox. Francesca is genuinely good, and the reader is often pulled into her conflicted, anxious thoughts and prayers as she worries about surviving widowhood and, in the end, just surviving.

Death in the Choir
By Lorraine V. Murray
Tumblar Books, 2009
181 pages

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kishwaukee College book signing

I’ll give a brief talk on “The Rules for Writing Mysteries” and sign copies of BLEEDER at the Kishwaukee College Library in Malta, IL, tomorrow, October 21, 1 pm - 2 pm.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Booked for Murder book signing

Thanks to Sara and her staff at Madison's Booked for Murder bookstore in Madison, Wisc., for Saturday's author event. It was fun to mingle with dedicated mystery readers and talk with Michael Black, Louisa Buehler and Sam Reaves, Mystery Writers of America acquaintances who came from Chicago for the day. When the writer scheduled to arrive at 3 pm didn't show, I was asked to take that slot plus the 3:30 slot already assigned, and I was glad to fill in. Nearly 20 people showed up for my presentation, and I'm grateful for such a good turn-out. I sold a few books, too. Unlike some other signing events where I keep all the profits or donate a percentage to the host, the bookstore (which managed the cash transactions) kept 1/3 and I kept 2/3, namely $10, which is close to my own cost per book of $9.87. So I basically broke even, especially if one disregards the cost of travel to Madison for the event and the enchilada lunch I had in the restaurant next door. 

ps: BLEEDER is ranked 30,000 today at, for what it's worth.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Madison book signing reminder

Just a reminder that I'll be signing copies of BLEEDER at the "Booked for Murder" bookstore in Madison, WI on Saturday, Oct 10, at 3:30 pm.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Latest Amazon review of BLEEDER

(5 0f 5 stars) A real page-turner, October 6, 2009 By
Gerard Webster (Jacksonville, FL USA) -

Reed Stubblefield--a college professor on sabatical--is a wounded man...both physically by a student's random shot and emotionally by his wife's recent death. He retreats to his brother's remote cabin in the small town of River Falls, Ill. in hopes of writing a book on Aristotle. It's the middle of March and Reed expects the campsite to be empty; but he's both disappointed and aggravated when he finds that the campsite and town are overflowing with throngs of believers--sick pilgrims seeking a cure from "the stigmatist" priest. Not only that, but Reed suspects that his brother deliberately set him up for an encounter with "Fr. Ray" in the hopes that it would lead to his physical and spiritual healing. Reed's skepticism and Aristotelian logic are an offset to the sometimes blind devotion of the believers. His natural curiosity and desire to find logical explanations are what leads him into becoming more embroiled in the frenzy going on around him. But when Fr. Ray dies suddenly in the middle of a church service, Reed's skepticism and unique physical ailments place him in the position of being a prime suspect in the priest's murder. Now he must rely on his intellect and training to find the real killer. BLEEDER was an exciting read from the first page to its satisfying resolution. I found myself turning the pages quickly to see what would happen next. The story builds in a crescendo like a symphony--beginning with the muted strings of questions unanswered to the crashing cymbals of its exciting conclusion. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

BLEEDER review: The Catholic Company

Here's a review I received today from The Catholic Company (photo at right: insurance agent Selena De La Cruz, a minor character in BLEEDER):

I love reading about the Catholic faith. I love reading mysteries. To be able to combine the two makes for a very happy person. So when I saw a new mystery, titled Bleeder by John Desjarlais, I thought I should give it a try.

I'm glad I did.

The author, a former producer of Wisconsin Public Radio, now teaches journalism and English at a small college in northern Illinois. Although this is his first mystery, he has a couple of novels to his name and has written for a variety of Christian and secular periodicals. All this writing experience comes to use in his first mystery novel with a very complex plot, multi-issue characters and an amazing climax scene when the mystery is solved.

The basic premise? Reed Stubblefield, a "sort of" Presbyterian (in other words, he went to the Presbyterian church when he was younger, but no longer believes in much of anything) and Artistotelian scholar heads to a small town in Illinois to recuperate from a gunshot wound which has left him with a shattered hip and the need for a cane, which he calls "Citizen Cane". To further exacerbate Reed's health issues, his wife died of cancer two years earlier and so he has episodes of depression and grief. On strong pain medications and anti-depressants, Reed is easily disoriented and his almost-50-year-old body is in pretty bad shape. His older brother lends him a cabin in the Illinois woods in a small town where there is a priest who allegedly bears the signs of the stigmata -- the five wounds of Jesus -- and is credited with miraculous healings. Reed knows nothing about the "healing Padre" and ends up limping into a hornet's nest of issues in this small town.

The writing is taut and well-researched, with appropriate quotes from Aristotle scattered throughout, tons of medical information, and well-defined characters. The supporting cast of characters span the spectrum from heretical charlatans to well-meaning cynics to good Catholics trying to understand the events occuring in their little town.

Desjarlais obviously spent much time and effort to build a mystery around the premise (stated by Fr. Ray Boudreau, the healing padre):

"There are no coincidences, Mr. Stubblefield. Coincidences are just God's way of remaining anonymous. "(pg 41)

That quote really sums up all that occurs in this many-threaded plot. A plot that at times seems completely disjointed, until I turned the page and it came together again.

I have a couple of small quibbles, though: Reed knows too many of the technical liturgical symbols, items, and traditions of the Catholic Church -- seemed far-fetched for a self-described "sort of Presbyterian". I also thought the author tried too hard to include a budding romance; it just didn't read naturally. Also, the text of the "newspaper" articles quoted in the book read like creative writing rather than fact-based (and usually quite terse) journalism.

The quibbles aside, I'd recommend this book for adults, especially those who like a good, fair mystery with lots of red herrings, plot twists, and side issues. Bleeder is a mystery that plays fair with the reader by hiding-in-plain-sight the clues that lead to the solution. I particularly love the last page ... wonderful!

(OK, the newspaper articles were proper for their respective venues: a tabloid report is going to be over-the-top sensational. The Weekly Observer stories are exactly as they typically appear in small town weeklies. But I don't want to sound too defensive. My thanks to the reviewer for a considered evaluation).