Praying like crazy: Psychopath takes on Olympia Brown’s murder ministry


“An Unholy Mission” by Judith Campbell, Mainly Murder Press, 260 pp., $16.95. Available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes.

The Rev. Dr. Judith Campbell this month publishes “An Unholy Mission,” the fourth in a series of books that feature ministerial sleuth Olympia Brown.

Let us pray it’s not the last in a quirky approach to mystery writing.

For example, Ms. Campbell trots out her villains early and clearly. Not the usual mystery writer approach. If we know the bad guys and have a sense of their specific villainy, where’s the mystery?

Plot line and character-crafting is the answer I get from readings in the “Mission” series. Ms. Campbell’s ministerial work likely provides her with authentic subject matter: people wrestling with life change and emotional turbulence. Her expository writing skills produce deftly nuanced characters, particularly women characters. We know these people, they are like us, and so we root for them.

We want to know how Ms. Campbell’s characters resolve their life issues. The mysterious attraction, as the Reverend writes it, comes from watching the living of their lives. Not to get all cosmic here, but that seems to be the big mystery for most of us. How will a life-changing crisis or the niggling issue du jour turn out? How well will we be able to handle the not knowing and continue to live to good effect for ourselves and in our relationships?

After reading two Olympia Brown sagas, I’m thinking that the ability to communicate that aspect of the human condition and to make it appealing to us may be Ms. Campbell’s most powerful asset as a mystery writer.

In “An Unholy Mission,” protagonist Rev. Olympia Brown, fresh from a ministry on Martha’s Vineyard, has signed up as a chaplain in a large Boston hospital with five other ministerial types. The job is a four-month gig designed for transitioning ministry professionals to experience chaplaincy as a career option. The unit is presided over by Sister Patrick Alphonsus, a classic depiction of nun as Field Marshall, for those of you who were treated to an elementary parochial school education.

They are a delicious blend. Jenny Abelard is a recovering drunk who lives and manages a women’s shelter. Timothea Jones is a large black woman who’s seen enough of urban life’s underside and wants to help. There is also Alice Whitethorn, a neurotic, hair-twirling divinity school student and Joel Silverstein, a doctor turned rabbi. Then there is Luther Stuart, weird and annoying. The kind of guy whose hand, in retrospect, you wish you hadn’t shaken.

There is also another character, Leanna Faith Winslow, a single mom who lived in Boston in the 1860s. We learn about Ms. Winslow from her diary, discovered by Olympia in her centuries-old house just outside the city. Her voice manages to be a clever ongoing element in the Olympia persona. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the life of a single mom and writer in the rigid 19th-century standards of morality.

Dr. Campbell was pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard for seven years until 2008, before launching her mystery series career. She describes her writing as an extension of her ministry. Her sleuth, Olympia Brown, was a teen mom, is the single mother of three, a former college professor, and definitely did not just fall off the turnip truck.

As we think about the genre, the essence of the mystery novel is the story of more or less socially healthy people dealing with sociopathy. That’s true from Tom Clancy’s world-scale novels or more locally, Lawrence Block’s Manhattan gumshoe mysteries.

Same here. As mystery novels go, we are playing small ball and that requires a change of expectation. There are no cataclysmic shootouts, no home run hero stunts a la Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character. Olympia treats us to a hint of sex and, blessedly, the odd four-letter word appears in her generally low-key, exceedingly polite dialog.

Ms. Campbell’s plots are believable and topical, pastoral malfeasance is the topic here, and they are murder mysteries. In “A Despicable Mission,” the criminals were in the business of ripping off well-heeled, elderly people and taking possession of their assets in the event of their death. In “An Unholy Mission,” the sociopathy initially involves inappropriate touching of patients by the delusional Mr. Stuart. Events escalate quickly to murder, arguably the highest level of inappropriate touching. Olympia, who’s been nosing around, is at risk as well as the community of patients.

We don’t reveal endings in these reviews, but suffice it to say that our prayers in paragraph two above have been answered. Olympia and her caring wisdom will show up anon.