Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Barry's Reviews: "THE BODY AND THE BLOOD" (2010) by Michael Lister

THE BODY AND THE BLOOD (2010) by Michael Lister

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

John Jordan is a man beset by conflicts, internal and external. An ex-cop, he's currently the chaplain for the Pottersville Correctional Institution and a sometime investigator who is trying to reconcile his capacity for violence with his calling to pacific ministry. He's experiencing a crisis of spirituality, if not exactly of faith. He has a tenuous relationship with his father and brother. He loves and has reunited with his wife Susan, from whom he had been separated, but is still in love with a co-worker, Anna Rodden, who is also  married. Susan lives in Atlanta and loves city life; Jordan prefers the rural life he has in Florida. Where to live together has yet to be decided and could potentially be a source of friction, especially considering the surprise Susan has for him.

Jordan also has to deal with his father-in-law, Tom Daniels, the Inspector General of the Florida Department of Corrections. Like Jordan, Daniels is a recovering alcoholic. Unlike Jordan, who has been sober for quite a while, Daniels' sobriety is very recent. It's a kind of shocked sobriety, the result of his wife Sarah having been raped by Juan Martinez, a prisoner at the Pottersville Correctional Institution. It has become Daniels' mission to put him away for the rest of his life. He's feeling good about accomplishing this because he has found a witness, another prisoner named Justin Menge, who is willing to testify against Martinez.

When Jordan learns this, he's taken aback because (when the novel opens) he's just had a conversation with Menge's sister Paula, who has visited her brother for the first time in the four years since he's been incarcerated. Menge, Martinez and others are kept in G-Dorm in the Protective Management unit of the prison. PM is for inmates who are at risk from the general population, and G-Dorm is supposed to adhere to rigid security protocols.

Technically, Jordan's workday is over and his time is his own, but he's returning to the prison because of a flyer he's received announcing a Catholic mass in the PM unit. The flyer is a doctored version of the one the priest distributed, and includes the words "A murder will take place." He discovers that Tom Daniels is on-site, too, conducting interviews and taking depositions, and shows Daniels the flyer. The two return to G-Dorm, where those who are not attending the mass are locked in their cells. Shortly thereafter the mass begins. Jordan and Daniels chat with one of the correctional officers who oversees the unit, a slacker named Potter. During Holy Communion, Jordan notices blood seeping from under the door to Justin Menge's cell. It can't possibly have happened—the cell was locked and the unit under observation by Jordan, Daniels and Potter—but Justin Menge has been murdered.

There is no dearth of suspects. Besides Martinez himself, there are inmates who would commit murder for him. There is Chris Sobel, Menge's boyfriend, and Paula Menge, who had visited her brother earlier. There is the priest, Father McFadden. During the course of his subsequent investigation, Jordan learns that an inmate named Mike Hawkins is in the PM unit. He's the son of the racist, homophobic sheriff of Pine County. Paula Menge insists that her brother was set up for eventual incarceration by Sheriff Howard Hawkins, and that Justin was in fact innocent. Jordan later finds out that a prison psychologist, DeLisa Lopez, might be intimately involved with an inmate who is a suspect in the case. And then there are Potter and Pitts, the correctional officers whose laxity frequently leaves the PM unit vulnerable to problems. 

Correctly guessing (rather than deducing) the identity of the murderer very early on didn't diminish my enjoyment of The Body and the Blood. Michael Lister does a good job of weaving together the various storylines and, although what attracted me to the novel in the first place was the locked-room puzzle, what ultimately proved most appealing was the credible complexity of John Jordan.

I wish I could say that for all of the other characters, but I can't. Many of the novel's suspects are not sufficiently fleshed-out. Some appear in brief scenes but don't make distinctive impressions, so when they're referred to later on, you'll either page back to see exactly who they are, or you'll shrug and keep reading. The characters who most come alive, apart from first-person narrator John Jordan, are his wife, his in-laws, his best friend Merrill Monroe, and Anna Rodden. In other words, those to whom he is closest.

Lister relies heavily on dialogue which, along with his lucid narrative style, speeds the story along nicely. But he has a habit of interrupting conversations with expository paragraphs, then returning to the conversations. I found myself often having to go back to the dialogue that preceded the exposition to recover the point of that which succeeded it. He also has a fondness for acronyms, but doesn't always explain what they stand for. I can only guess that FDLE stands for Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Although its impossible-crime aspect isn't in the league of John Dickson Carr, Paul Halter, Hake Talbot and Clayton Rawson, The Body and the Blood  nevertheless merits a Golden Age Mystery-type illustration depicting the layout of G-Dorm and the relative positions of inmates' cells to where the mass was held at the time Jordan discovered murder had been committed. I found it difficult to envisage from the verbal description given.

Whether the following comment applies to the print edition I can't say, since I read the e-book—specifically, the Kindle edition—but the latter is in dire need of a good proofreader. It teems with punctuation errors and misspellings, and at least a couple of sentences are missing necessary words.  

Despite its locked-room puzzle, The Body and the Blood is not a cozy whodunit/howdunit in the manner of the aforementioned Golden Age authors and others. It is very much a hardboiled detective story involving onstage violence, raw language, and some sexuality. Readers who find these elements repellent are advised to stay away. Those who can deal with them can expect a fast-moving read starring an appealingly human protagonist. My nitpicks notwithstanding, this one is recommended.

Barry Ergang © 2012

Barry Ergang's own locked-room mystery novelette, "The Play of Light and Shadow," is available at Smashwords and Amazon in e-reader editions for 99¢. Formerly the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award for the best flash fiction story of 2006, his written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. See Barry’s webpagesRemember, too, that he has books from his personal collection for sale at http://barryergangbooksforsale.yolasite.com/ He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our fund, so please have a look at his lists.


jennymilch said...

Thanks for the nuanced review, Barry. I'm looking forward to seeing if I guess correctly!

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I have the book in my TBR pile.

I thank Barry for his review as well and am grateful the book isn't fifty years old either.

Barry Ergang said...

You're welcome, Jenny and Kevin. But Kev, what's wrong with a fifty-year-old book?