“A Deadly Mission,” by Judith Campbell, Mainly Murder Press, LLC. June, 2010, 291 pgp. $15.95.
There’s method to the Machiavellian madness in “A Deadly Mission,” a fast-moving story of religious cults, college bureaucracy, and yes, murder. Author Judith Campbell accomplished her intention of making specific points about tolerance, the verities of academic life, and most pointedly, about the dangers of religious cults.
“My agenda in writing these mysteries is to expose religious hypocrisy and the people who do terrible things in the name of religion,” she says. “The writing has become a part of my ministry.”
A former professor at Lesley University in Cambridge for 27 years, author of children’s stories, poetry, and art books, Ms. Campbell served as minister of the Island’s Unitarian Universalist Society for seven years until her resignation in 2008. Now, with plans for more mysteries featuring her crime-solving protagonist, Olympia Brown, Ms. Campbell has whimsically dubbed herself “The Sinister Minister.”
And while there is no real mystery in “A Deadly Mission” — the reader can easily separate the good guys from the bad — neither is there an overbearing weight to the delivery of the message.
The novel is a quick read. Ms. Campbell writes in an accessible style with a light hand, humor, and fine sense of storytelling rhythm. There are no significant surprises, but the side plots are inventive — a budding romance, a ghost lurking in a 250-year-old house, a daughter given up at birth — and all the characters are finely drawn and engaging.
Her 52-year old protagonist, the very relatable Professor Olympia Brown, is staunch, humorous, and tell-it-like-it-is blunt — much like the author.
“I am putting myself out there by having a gay Catholic priest as the protagonist’s partner,” Ms. Campbell says, referring to Olympia’s cohort, Father Jim Sawicki, who is described as “intensely private, drop-dead handsome.” She adds, “It’s because I want to explode stereotypical thinking.”
The setting is Meriwether College, a women’s college in Cambridge, where Olympia teaches. The ultra-conservative administrators turn a deaf ear when Olympia expresses concerns about the “accidental” deaths of two students, including her first-year student Sonya Wilson. Both students were involved with the Mission of the Boston Christian Common Fellowship Renewal Center in Brighton.
“I’m convinced the college could have done more, and I should have done more myself, but I didn’t,” Olympia says. “So that makes me part of what failed her.”
She and Father Jim take action when they become aware that Bethany Ruth, a homesick, vulnerable freshman, is being drawn to the Fellowship by the ruthless Brother David and well-intended Sister Sarah, despite the harsh disciplines, questionable practices, and dangerous implications.
“I need a human salvage project like a fish needs a bicycle…” Olympia says, adding, “and where the hell do I begin?”
As Bethany Ruth tells Olympia she’s been invited to stay at the cult’s center in Brighton for Thanksgiving, “Olympia’s internal warning signals were going off like air horns on an eighteen-wheeler, but she willed her face and voice into neutral.”
She enlists her younger son, Malcolm, a musician, to infiltrate the cult by attending one of the Fellowship’s regular Praise Rallies, free rock concerts on the Boston Common. When Olympia’s and his intentions are discovered, and the Fellowship’s requirement of total submission and mindless obedience revealed, they are subjected to threats and vandalism, and the action escalates.
While all this is going on, a romance begins to take shape between Olympia and Englishman Frederick Watkins, who met each other while camping in Maine. He arrives to lend support to her efforts to untangle the clues and expose the Fellowship. Olympia sums up her feelings as she watches Frederick sleeping on her couch: “… and while I’m no Scarlett O’Hara, and you’re hardly Rhett Butler, come the dawn, my sleepy English friend, I see distinct possibilities.”
But the two have company in the old house, a resident ghost from the 1800s, who makes her presence felt.
It is a complicated story simply told, and a good summer read. Ms. Campbell, who explains that she’s drawn from parts of her own life experiences, admits the book had been brewing in her mind for about 20 years. Finally, with the encouragement of West Tisbury mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, her Oak Bluffs writing group, story-teller Susan Klein, and other Islanders — among those acknowledged in the book — and with her motivation crystallized, the writing began in earnest.
“You can’t sit back and say ‘tsk, tsk’ at social injustices. Strong feelings aren’t enough,” Ms. Campbell says. “You have to do something about it.”
Judith Campbell will read excerpts and sign books at a reception on Saturday, June 19, at 2 pm at the Oak Bluffs Library. Refreshments will be served. “A Deadly Mission” will be available after July 15 at Island bookstores.