Sober Justice and Double Take

Jan 9, 2006

Joseph Hilley has written two mystery novels, Sober Justice and Double Take, set in Mobile/Fairhope, Alabama. While the first book claims religious interventions help lawyer Mike Connolly find evidence in a murder case, the second book is along the lines of a more traditional mystery novel.

The novels of Joseph H. Hilley, of Fairhope, Alabama, who became just Joe Hilley for his second book, are not books I would normally review in this space. They are the first I have seen of a new subgenre that might be called Christian murder mysteries. But there had been a little buzz, so I gave them a look.

Hilley?s first novel is Sober Justice. This book, like the second, Double Take, takes place in Mobile, in Fairhope, on the coast in Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island, and even has a scene at the Taylor-Hardin lock-up for the criminally insane in Tuscaloosa. It is always fun to read about the streets one has walked. (Mobile, that is, not the lock-up.)

Hilley also chooses in both books to begin with a scene that shows the actual murder. In Sober Justice this tells the reader not who done it but who did not do it.

In this first book, a black man, Avery Thompson, is arrested for murder. We already know that he is innocent. The court appoints Mobile lawyer Mike Connolly to defend Thompson. Connolly is divorced, estranged from his daughter, and is a fierce, quart-a-day-of-gin alcoholic. One suspects that the ?powers? expect Connolly to do a poor job so that Thompson will be convicted.

But Connolly undergoes a kind of minor miracle in St. Pachomius, an evangelical, New Age Episcopal church. He sees unlit candles burning and falls into a faint. When he awakens, Father Scott explains to him that ?The Spirit of the Living God passed over the altar.? Connolly quits drinking, right then.

Well, OK, but it gets much more intense and mystical. At one point the bad guys disable Connolly?s classic 1959 Chrysler Imperial by removing the distributor cap. Connolly jumps in; the car starts anyway, and Connolly escapes. It?s a miracle. The gunman?s ?mouth dropped open in amazement.? Quite right.

Even worse, in another scene Connolly is about to be shot in the head when the deity intercedes and makes it yesterday. He gets a ?do-over,? something like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Father Scott explains all time is one moment in the mind of God and He can do anything He wants to. Maybe so, but writers of suspense action thrillers can?t, or at least shouldn?t.

The whodunnit falls into two large types, either tales of logic and ratiocination, or tales in which the detective is able to identify with and think like the criminal. In either case, part of the pleasure for the reader is in figuring things out, preferably before the sleuth does.

No miracles are allowed. Christian rock may be a lot like regular rock: it is painfully loud with electric guitars and drums with a repetitive, annoying backbeat, but Christian detective stories with miraculous intrusions are not possible. Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, whole legions of writers are spinning in their graves.

But Hilley has his strengths. I kind of liked Mike Connolly and the Alabama settings, even though the plot of Sober Justice is a little thin. So I read the second novel, Double Take, and it is much better. Hilley seems to have gotten supernatural intervention mostly out of his system. Perhaps people spoke to him.

Connolly only has one mystical ?event,? a vision, in which he can ?see? in his mind?s eye what happened at a murder scene. This could easily be explained by a careful analysis of the evidence and some intelligent guesswork as on CSI. Otherwise Double Take is a fair murder mystery of corporate greed, espionage, adultery, smuggling, and violence.

Neither of these books is first-rate, but there is hope for Hilley. Pick up the first one if you must, as you would go to a rarie show out of curiosity, to see a two-headed cow or some other monstrosity. Read the second for the promise that it shows.