What’s a “cozy” mystery, you might ask. As someone massively addicted to mysteries of all stripes, I will attempt to answer you: The cozy, nine times out of 10, uncorks its quaint little self in a country setting. The murders are seldom — make that never — too gruesome to read just before turning off your light at bedtime. The characters are colorful, the dialogue sprightly; there is nothing to offend; you can give one as a birthday present to your prudish Great-Aunt Virginia. The cozy, then, is a modern-day spinoff of the original English mysteries of the mid-20th century with Dame Agatha Christie at the helm.
Judith Campbell of Oak Bluffs, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, lives with her truly peachy English husband, and she authors a mystery series featuring a minister who lives with her peachy English husband. “Write what you know” is an old adage, and eternally good advice. The Rev. Judith’s mysteries inspire you to whip up a cup of hot chocolate and settle down in your favorite armchair, surfacing only for a fire drill or when you’ve reached the final chapter.
This ministerial series began with the Rev. Olympia as a college chaplain in Cambridge for A Deadly Mission, then on to Dorchester in An Unspeakable Mission, Martha’s Vineyard for Despicable Mission; a stint as chaplain in a Boston hospital in Unholy Mission, a small town on the South Shore in A Predatory Mission, and, of ultimate fun, a romp in the Moorlands of the U.K. for An Improper English Mission. The seventh installment does not disappoint: A Singular Mission takes us to Cape Cod.
In A Singular Mission, the minister and amateur sleuth has been engaged for a three-month winter ministry in a picture-book church somewhere in the hinterlands of Cape Cod. With considerable prescience, Ms. Campbell wrote this thriller that begins, scarily enough, with a January storm bearing down on the Rev. Olympia Brown and her new church. Also on the frightening side, she has a stalker. In a twist that only further obliges the reader to stay socked into her chair, this one’s a woman, a needy congregant turned deadly.
At the very tippy-top of the prologue, the Rev. Olympia sits at her new desk in her borrowed office, and spots a ragged Valentine’s Day gift drooped on the back of the door, a cheesy mess of pink ribbons and red tissue. The good minister is already uneasy about a neurotic congregant, one Emily Goodale, and she recalls a warning from her early days in seminary: “The Pastoral Ministry Professor had looked over her glasses at the ministers in training and said, ‘Watch out for the note takers and the gift-givers. You need to handle them with kid gloves.’”
From page one, the scene is already set for trouble. Other cozies tend to zig and zag before a corpse is found in someone’s garden or pantry, and frankly, it’s often hard to care because the story rarely digs down into deeper and more authentic layers of the human condition. Not so with the Rev. Judith’s stories. She has a painterly touch for the dark nuance: “Under the gaily colored tissue was a crushed dead rose, its stem snapped in two, and an unsigned children’s penny valentine bearing the word ‘Forever.’” She keeps the action going, at the same time unspooling what we might perhaps call a “ministerial procedural” in the vein of the well-known “police procedural,” a genre of murder mysteries along the lines of Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly, among an untold legion of others.
The Rev. Judith adds another delightful dimension to her tales: In the antique farmhouse her main character slowly rehabilitating with ever-helpful hubby Frederick, she has at her disposal a 19th century set of diaries kept by the original owner of the house. As she dips into new entries, she’s given insight into long-ago joys and heartaches that reflect her own (she’s reunited with a long-lost baby daughter, now all grown up with joys and heartaches of her own).
In addition to mysteries, the Rev. Judith writes children’s’ stories, poetry, and essays. She acquired a Ph.D. in the arts and religious studies, and a masters of arts in fine arts. She divides her time between Martha’s Vineyard and Plymouth with husband Chris Stokes, who describes himself as a “professional Englishman.” Indeed, after you’ve spent any amount of time with Mr. Stokes, and you’ve read the Mission mysteries, you have little idea of where Mr. Stokes leaves off and Olympia’s Frederick begins.
An eighth mystery comes out next month, A Twisted Mission; it’s a prequel to the Holy Mission saga, set in a conference center in southern Maine where the Rev. Olympia presides as summer chaplain.