Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mystery, thrills and suspense from contemporary Catholic writers

I was sorting through a bunch of goodies that I picked up last August at the combined Catholic Writers Guild/New Media/Marketing Network conference and thought I would pass them on to you, before I "file" them (you know what that means). Among other things, I nabbed a number of marketing cards for novels written by members of the Catholic Writers Guild, and I thought I would commend these books to your consideration (even though I have not read most of them). A few that don't get mentioned here will be noted over on my Catholic Science Fiction blog. Today, I thought I would focus on suspense and mystery titles. Here goes:

Unbridled Grace by Michael J. Norman
Unbridled Grace: A True Story about the Power of Choice, by Michael J. Norman. This one actually is not fiction, but fact. The author is a chiropractor from right here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, whose true story sounds like a best-selling thriller. Dr. Norman got dragged into a rats' nest of intrigue when he unknowingly got involved with a Russian money-laundering ring under investigation by the FBI. The book's web site describes the story this way:
Unbridled Grace is the true story of how one man rises from the forces of evil through his renewed faith in Christ and takes the reader on a journey to redemption through the bold use of our power of choice for God. Along the way, Michael meets a dynamic Catholic parish priest who gives him the courage to forge a path through this crisis and a hard-working attorney who joins him in this monumental battle. Will their efforts be enough to free the author and his family from this nightmare? It is at this time that a series of seemingly miraculous occurrences begin and the reader is shown what courage, faith and the power of heartfelt prayer can bring to all of our lives when all else appears hopeless.
Murder in The Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, by Ann Margaret Lewis, with some charming illustrations by Rikki Niehaus. I am really sorry my book-buying budget is so non-existent these days, because I would really love to read this book. As you can see, the author cashes in on the current popular trend of extending the literary lives of great characters from out-of-copyright books of the past. Who could resist a book in which Sherlock Holmes gets to sleuth for Pope Leo XIII? Here's the blurb:
Follow the great Sherlock Holmes as he investigates three baffling cases at the "express desire of his Holiness, the Pope." Stories include "The Death of Cardinal Tosca," "The Vatican Cameos," and "The Second Coptic Patriarch."
You'll encounter baffling crimes, rich, historical settings, and a fateful encounter with Father Brown!
These thrilling tales of murder and intrigue vividly bring to life three of Watson's "untold tales!"
Viper, by John Desjarlais, sports the tagline, "Who is stronger, the serpent or the virgin?" This the second mystery featuring Latina sleuth, Selena de la Cruz, a former DEA agent turned insurance investigator.
Selena De La Cruz has a problem. Just before All Souls' Day someone entered the names of nine people in her church's Book of the Dead, seeking prayers for their souls.
The problem?
All nine are still alive. Until they start getting murdered . . . one by one . . . in the precise order their names were entered in the Book of the Dead . . . and always right after a local visionary sees a mysterious woman known as The Blue Lady.
Is she the Virgin Mary warning the next victim? Lady Death, the Aztec goddess, come to claim another soul? Or someone less mystical, but deadly nonetheless?
Selena doesn't know but had better find out: only a few souls on that list have not yet been murdered, and the last name on it is . . . Selena De La Cruz.
The Soul Reader: A Novel of Suspense, by Gerard D. Webster. This novel is a sequel but, according to reader reviews, can be read as a stand-alone tale. (Don't you love it when you fall in love with a story and then discover there is more where that came from?) Apparently, in the first book, the protagonist lost his eyesight but gained the ability to see into people's souls (whence the title of this book).
It is a year after his father's murder when Carrie Hope asks Ward to assist her in writing a book about the North Beach Project, the money-laundering scheme that led to his father's death. Ward initially turns her down. ... But when Carrie decides to pursue the investigation without him, Ward is faced with a difficult choice: he can allow her to go it alone and possibly get killed . . . or he can join her in hopes of being able to protect her. Ward's uncanny insight might give him an edge-and allow him to see the evil coiled ...
Although I haven't read any of these books, they all sound like things I'd enjoy and, judging by the great reviews they get on Amazon, they are intriguing tales that embody Catholic values and themes, so I don't hesitate to bring them to your attention. If you have read any of them, please leave a comment below and let us know what you think!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

An Odd and most-endearing protagonist

Odd Thomas mass market paperback cover, Dean Koontz
I've been reading Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas stories lately, supernatural thrillers with an unusual twist. Generally speaking, I'm not interested in supernatural or paranormal stories, but I like Odd Thomas, the protagonist who sees dead people and bodachs (dark, wispy spirits who sniff out violent death before it occurs), and who can track soon-to-be mass murderers using something he calls psychic magnetism. What I like about Odd is the fact that he is, in many ways, quite an ordinary young fellow, but one with a great sense of responsibility for his fellow man. Although his strange "gift" is obviously a burden to him, he does not complain or whine about it (or about anything else), but regards it as a talent he has been given for the good of others.
Nonetheless, he does not use it to become a sort of paranormal hero, going around seeking out evil to foil it before it happens. He knows, instinctively, that he needs to balance his peculiar gift with a perfectly ordinary life, one that is quite dull compared to the situations into which his unique abilities draw him. He has no personal ambition, other than to live a long and happily uneventful life with his girlfriend, Stormy Llewellyn; he is blissfully happy as a fry cook at a small-town diner and, on those rare occasions that he does consider a job change, his top picks are working in a tire store or shoe shop. Of course, a man with his God-given gift is doomed to a life much more eventful and challenging than the one to which he aspires.
The Odd Thomas stories are told from a first person perspective, memoirs that Odd has been urged to write by a successful novelist friend of his, Little Ozzie, who discovered Odd's writing talent when he judged a local high school writing competition and picked Odd Thomas's work as the clear winner. Since then Little Ozzie has become a confidant and mentor to Odd, one of a few intimate friends aware of Odd's supernatural gifts, and he urges him to write his memoirs (to be published only after his death) as a kind of therapy to work through the stress and strain of his burdensome life.
"Give the narrative a lighter tone than you think it deserves, dear boy, lighter than you think that you can bear to give it," he instructed before I began to write, "because you won't find the truth of life in morbidity, only in hope."
Odd succeeds admirably in obeying this injunction, and tells his tales quite humorously, in a self-deprecating way. Young Odd (twenty years old in the first novel of the series) is quite an endearing character, never completely overwhelmed by the evil he confronts because he, like his mentor Little Ozzie, finds the truth of life in hope. He relishes the goodness in the world, despite all the evil. And, although there is always a supernatural element in the stories, the evil always comes from the depths of the human heart, rather than from some supernatural malevolence (although that may be lurking in the background, unseen). Odd's difficult upbringing has made him sensitive to the hidden goodness in people who may not think themselves good, who may, in fact, have been treated badly for so long that they believe they deserve to be treated badly. Living or dead, he wishes them well, and tries to do them good.

When the silent dead appear to Odd (silent, but as warm and tangible as the living), it is often because they need his help to let go of life and pass on to the next thing, for better or for worse. These forlorn souls may have died through violence -- in which case Odd helps discover their killer -- or illness, but they linger not so much out of a desire to cling to a life that is no longer theirs as to avoid what they expect to be a painful and dismal eternity. Odd finds that what holds them in the land of the living is not desire for revenge (a staple of many ghost stories) but, quite often, an ill-founded sense of guilt; in these cases, Odd reassures them, urging them to believe that their loved ones do not blame them for their faults and that eternity holds the possibility not only of punishment, but of mercy.

Dean Koontz quotation "Pain is a gift"

Odd obviously regards his "gift" as God-given. He may not be overtly religious (although his girlfriend is the niece of the local Catholic priest, and the bell tower of the parish church is one of their favorite picnic spots), but the writer, Dean Koontz, is a sincere Catholic and it is clear that he conceives the lingering spirits to be those destined for Heaven, but not yet willing to believe it. Part of their purgatory is to reach the point where they can truly accept the goodness of God and believe that He really has forgiven their sin; these Odd tries to reassure, and eventually he succeeds. Another part of these bereft souls' transition into eternity is their opportunity to do good for those they've left behind, by helping Odd Thomas to expose their killers and see them brought to justice so that they cannot hurt anyone else.

Odd Thomas himself is not immune to suffering or to a sense of personal guilt; in fact, his patient suffering is one of his most appealing attributes. Over the course of the novels, he is morally perfected through his suffering -- at least, that is Koontz's plan (the series is not yet finished). As he successively (and successfully) confronts more and more evil, Odd seems to become sweeter and sweeter, ever humbler, more perfectly resigned to his burdensome task in life. At the same time, he grows to savor the goodness of life ever more deeply. This deepening of his love for the living (and the dead) makes him stand out from other protagonists of supernatural thrillers, like a candle flame in a dark room. He truly is odd, but in the best possible way.

Learn more about author Dean Koontz and the influence of his Catholic faith on his writing in this video of an interview with Raymond Arroyo, from his TV show, The World Over, on EWTN.