Almost heaven


When I set about writing this new mystery novel of mine, I knew from the start where it would be set: in the majestic mountains of eastern West Virginia. My love affair with this state started with a personal connection: a very, very dear old friend who had partially grown up there, long enough to acquire the distinctive speech patterns and expressions used by folks from that part of the country. I’ve visited the state a number times, but each time has been memorable, not only for the natural beauty, but also the incredible openness and friendliness of its people. However, I wanted this state to be more than just a mere setting, I wanted it to be almost another character in the book and indeed, its flora and fauna and rugged terrain do play a big role in the plot’s resolution. A medieval-style monastery in West Virginia might seem an unusual or unlikely thing, but I didn’t want anyone thinking I was writing a thinly veiled portrait of the real-life Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, though I admit that place may have been an early inspiration. My fictional monastery is a very unique and very different sort of  place, which deserves to be set in a very unique state.

However, for a relatively small state, its character changes quite dramatically from north to south, and from panhandle to panhandle. So I had to zero in on the part of it I wanted to write about, even though I created a fictional town—also a fictional county, mountain, state park and creek—to complement my make-believe monastery. The general area is what the tour guides call the Potomac Highlands Region, where the Appalachian culture might not be as intense as in the western and southern counties, but it’s an area I’m familiar with, and it has a unique culture and history of its own. You could read more about it in the fiction of Mary Lee Settle and Denise Giardina, who’ve both written about this area and its people. It’s a splendid, ancient, scarred, and often overlooked section of the state, and I’m happy to give it some needed attention.

The mystery novel now is done, and is going off to the printers for a proof copy this week; I’m going to enter it in a competition that should give it some advance publicity and will also be posting an ARC on NetGalley, before it’s eventually published late this summer (sometime in August—late summer reading!) And by happy coincidence, galleys arrived today for Called to Serve: The Untold Story of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, so that book may see the light of day soon. The Franciscans did not tamper with it too much, I’m happy to say. And I have a freelance editorial project awaiting my eyeballs, a fantasy novel called Pillars of Atlantis, which I had edited as a rough draft some time ago, but now hope to polish for the author so he can finally publish it. So summer writing/editing so far is going as planned. Wish I could say the same for my garden…

Good angel, bad angel

I like to think my mystery novel is finished, only because I finally figured out the ending, but I still have a long way to go, lots and lots of editing ahead to tighten up the story. I am trying not to worry about literary devices and hidden meanings, but I couldn’t help but notice a strong undercurrent of good versus evil running through it, which I actually want to avoid, because part of the mystery is tied in with ‘good’ people who behave badly and seemingly ‘bad’ people who show some decency and humanity. I want there to be plenty of gray areas (but not fifty shades worth—this is a fairly chaste novel, for me). I’ve come to realize it’s not moralizing on my part, but hearkening back to a legend I heard years ago, as a second-grader in parochial school: that of the Archangel Michael and the formerly ‘good’ archangel Lucifer.  Sister Mary Anthony told the story pretty well, as I recall, jumping up from her desk to show precisely how Michael booted the bad angel out of Heaven and into Hell.

What was Lucifer’s crime? Sister Anthony said it was a case of extreme ego, that he wanted to replace God himself. But in more scholarly works I later read, it seemed he was either envious of Michael, or, oddly, the human race created in the image of God. Wikipedia actually has an entry called “The War in Heaven.” And hence, an instant plot for any number of novels, movies, TV dramas and superhero comic books to follow. In my novel there is both a Michael, and a Lucifer. But I’m working very hard to blur this distinction, trying to tarnish Michael’s crown and polish up Lucifer’s. And I hope to do it to a point where the reader almost needs to question, which is which?  In the end, Michael, who comes dangerously close to completely succumbing to the Lucifer character (both physically and morally), is not able to vanquish him entirely, because this is what actually happens, in real life down here on earth.

Lest you think this novel is veering toward those moody and depressing Scandinavian-style mysteries, a.k.a. Wallander, I can assure you the style is much lighter, with plenty of comic relief. It’s thoroughly contemporary, set right now in 2018 in out post-Obama America. Yet it’s set in a medieval-style monastery that is struggling to survive; indeed the abbey’s very survival hinges on the outcome of the mystery, which involves the death (murder???) of one of its monks. Alas, I can’t seem to get away from the monastery, but you know that it is all informed by my research into Merton, the Trappists and even the Franciscans.  I always loved the Brother Cadfael mysteries, and during my sojourn into non-fiction, it occurred to me that an abbey is a perfect place to set a murder mystery: Everyone is a suspect…and no one is a suspect!  I like to describe my book as a modern Black Narcissus, but with monks in West Virginia instead of nuns in the Himalayas. With humor, I might add, and a more classic, mystery novel format.

And yes, my voracious readers, it will be series! Another difficulty I’m contending with is setting up characters for the long haul, and dropping in hints of things that might be looked into later on. For example, a new monk who arrives at the monastery and plays a fairly crucial role has very little backstory; and it can’t developed much in this book, because he suffers from psychosomatic mutism.  He literally does not talk, and so, can’t really tell anyone about himself. But the next book in this series will devote more time to him.

I’m lucky to now have the luxury of being able to work almost full-time on this book for a while, before taking on any significant freelance editorial assignments. The biography. Called to Serve, will be out sometime this fall or winter, according to my publisher, so I may have to stop and scramble to promote that. Though I was tempted to continue with biography and non-fiction, I’m happy to return to fiction, because making up untrue stories seems to be what I do best.