At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Monday, May 20, 2013

Art Imitates Life, or Murder in the House of God

A couple weeks ago, I had breakfast with colleague and good friend L.B. Graham. Every once in a while, we trek over to McDonald's to discuss life, writing, and the behind-the-scenes details at school over some high protein items on the dollar menu. It's a tradition we've kept up whenever we that started with Saturday morning breakfast runs in seminary when the Des Peres McDonald's stubbornly kept its TV on CNN, much to our annoyance.

L.B. is a fine teacher, superb department chairman (our department meetings are only as long as absolutely needed), trusted friend, and a fine writer. Whenever we catch an hour or two to talk, the conversation inevitably turns to writing and the trimmings that come along with it. We plow through details of contracts, compare notes on our publishers (mainly because I never pass up a chance to praise my own publisher), and where we are with our respective storylines. After a bit, L.B. asked me if I was having difficulty being patient waiting for my autumn release date for Litany of Secrets. I said, "Well, yeah. It'd be nice to fast forward to November, but it is what it is." I paused, chewing on a bit of my sausage McMuffin, before I finally gushed--oblivious to those around us, "Man, it's so surreal to have a murder story take place at a seminary!"

Thankfully, no one at the tables surrounding us heard me. Then again, the average age of the crowd made me place them as eyewitnesses to King David's conquest of Jerusalem. L.B. chuckled, though, completely understanding where I was coming from. If I could wrap it up in one sentence, it would be: The perceived safe haven is a gold mine for a murder mystery.

Maybe "gold mine" is going a bit far. It's all too painful for some at our alma mater, Covenant Theological Seminary, that a murder took place there years ago. A nurse from Scotland, Elizabeth Mackintosh, was on campus working toward a counseling degree. From all indications she was having a relatively blissful time of pursuing her degree. All until March 26, 1990, when she was found strangled and stabbed in a stall in the men's bathroom on the lower level of CTS's chapel.

I wasn't a student there at the time, but people still whispered about the Mackintosh murder during my days in St. Louis. It was surreal indeed to take Hebrew, church history, Greek, and theology courses on that same downstairs level. Strange, of course, to--on more than one occasion--use that same bathroom. Even more sobering to recall that a seminary student was the primary suspect for some time in a case that ran cold and never closed its fingers around a guilty party.

I have to confess that the Mackintosh murder came to mind when I began the first volume in the Cameron Ballack mystery series. Not that I'm plowing new literary ground by any means: P.D. James sent Commander Adam Dalgliesh to St. Anselm's College on the English coast in Death in Holy Orders. But the gritty and sad reality of past tragedy did pave the way for my setting in the forthcoming Litany of Secrets. It doesn't represent Covenant Seminary by any stretch. My setting is a bucolic enclave in rural St. Charles County where the Eastern Orthodox Church trains its priests. But nonetheless I felt a sense of realism when writing the novel, because this has happened before.

It happened in a way that provoked people to say this shouldn't happen. Murder in the house of God? No way! This should be a safe haven. But to me, that hope is overridden by a greater truism. Whatever you call it--sin, wickedness, evil, brokenness, transgression, fallenness...splashes over a lot more than we can imagine. Murder in the house of God shocks us because of where it takes place, but it shouldn't shock us, mainly because of who we are.


Karl Michael Johnson said...

Hi Luke! Would love to speak to you more about this. Please write me.

Catherine said...

Wild to find your post. My mom was a student at Covenant when Elizabeth was murdered. I was a sophomore at WCA at the time. I was just thinking about Elizabeth's murder and decided to google it and came across your post. I see you also teach at WCA. Small world. :)