Thursday, March 19, 2015

Michael Lister, Guest Author

Over the years, I've read several of Michael Lister's John Jordan mysteries. It's good to see that he's finally getting some recognition. Publisher's Weekly recently gave his latest book, Innocent Blood, a starred review. They're also doing a piece on the series in the March 23rd issue.

Innocent Blood starts a new chapter in the John Jordan series, so you can start with that one if you'd like. Here's the trailer for the book,

I always found John Jordan intriguing, and his connection with the Atlanta Child Murders is a link to a remembered part of our history. I asked Michael Lister to talk about Jordan, and the books. Thank you, Michael.

A Clerical Detective of a Different Cloth
By Michael Lister

I wanted to write religious and clerical detective mystery novels before I knew anything about G. K. Chesterton or Father Brown. So when I happened upon the 1990 Avenel edition of Father Brown Crime Stories in a dusty old bookstore in Atlanta the year I graduated from theology College and was ordained, it was nothing less than serendipitous. During that momentous year of transition, as I was being born into my adult life, Chesterton in many ways became my literary father and Brown the fictional father to my ecclesiastical sleuth, John Jordan.
It would be the summer of ’94, as I was finishing my graduate degree in theology and about to enter into full-time prison chaplaincy, before I became a writer, and ex-cop, prison chaplain, John Jordan was born (his debut case first appeared in ’97's Power in the Blood). There’s no doubt that the seeds of his birth had been planted in that happy accidental discovery of Chesterton and the epiphany that Father Brown had become for me five years earlier.
I had already conceived the idea for a prison chaplain clerical detective and had been making notes and sketching out scenes when I was offered a job as a prison chaplain with the Florida Department of Corrections. Part of the reason I took the job was to fully immerse myself in an environment and culture few people ever can. For seven years I lived my research, serving as a contract, staff, and eventually senior chaplain at three different correctional facilities in the Florida panhandle. Since leaving chaplaincy to write full-time in 2000, I have continued to work inside prison as a volunteer to, among other things, stay connected to the milieu of my mysteries.
Chesterton didn’t create the detective story. That distinction goes to Edgar Allen Poe, but he did create the clerical detective story. As Poe did for the mystery story, Chesterton established many of the conventions of the ecclesiastical sleuth that I and many other writers still follow today. And just as all mystery writers owe a debt to Poe and Dupin, all clerical detective writers must obey the fifth commandment by honoring their fathers Chesterton and Brown.
There are a number of ways John Jordan differs from Father Brown. Honor my father though I do, like any son I’ve had to find my own way—besides I’ve had many literary fathers, and part of the fun of working in a genre is to play with and against its conventions.
As inspiring and influential as I found Chesterton, I was reading other masters of mystery before I ever encountered him. I owe as much to hard-boiled writers like Hammett, Chandler, and Parker as I do Chesterton, and I knew from the very beginning that my clerical detective would be different. I would introduce a clerical detective into the world of the hard-boiled detective novel, and I felt that making him a prison chaplain was the perfect way to do it.
In addition to marrying the clerical and hard-boiled detective novels, I also wanted to create an almost nonreligious religious sleuth. Part of the tension and conflict of my own experience as a person of faith has always been my aversion to organized religion. Much of the tension has now been resolved since I started writing full-time, but when I was a chaplain it was a paradox that kept me in a predicament, and I wanted to give John Jordan the same uncomfortable conflict.
The irony of The Innocence of Father Brown, the title of this first collection of short stories, is that Father Brown is not innocent at all. Or if he is, it is an innocence not of the mind but of the heart. Innocence does not imply ignorance nor does purity require naiveté. Because of his vocation, Father Brown, like all clerical detectives who have followed him, is in a unique position to understand humanity. “As one knows the crooked track of a snail, I know the crooked track of a man,” he says. As Ellis Peters, creator of Brother Cadfael said, the approach of the religious detective “must rest mainly on the observation of character, which is of far more interest than forensic detail.”
Like Father Brown, Chaplain Jordan is neither naive nor ignorant, but unlike Brown,  Jordan’s insight into human nature doesn’t come from confessions and counseling alone, but from his own experiences. Unlike Chesterton’s cloistered celibate, John Jordan is a man with a past—one that includes violence and failure in the form of a dysfunctional family, a failed marriage, alcoholism, and time spent in law enforcement working the mean streets of Atlanta.
Part of Father Brown’s and Chaplain Jordan’s appeal, and that of other amateur sleuths who are also spiritual leaders, is their moral authority. Though never surprised, they are always outraged by the dark deeds that harm others. Something not just because of their vocation but in their very nature cries out for justice, wants to be the standard God raises up when evil comes in like a flood, wants to set things back in order, reestablish the balance.
But Brown and Jordan aren’t merely out for justice. They’re also ministers who see a crime scene as a mission field. Unlike other detectives, they don’t solve crimes for the sake of ego. It’s not merely a matching of wits, but a mission in which they ensnare the guilty in order to show them a better way—they are not so much bloodhounds as hounds of heaven.
In my first mystery, Power in the Blood, John Jordan witnesses the bloody death of a Potter Correctional Institution inmate, Ike Johnson, and is told, not asked, by his warden to help with the investigation. Outside the prison walls, the ghosts of John’s past haunt the dingy little trailer he now calls home, and though he doesn’t regret having left a large church in Atlanta for Florida’s toughest prison, the loneliness is getting to him and he’s ready for some female company—which arrives by Fed-Ex. As he conducts his first investigation inside PCI, John discovers that in the closed society of captives and captors no action goes unseen, and no one takes kindly to a cop in a collar. Soon his reputation, career, and even his life are at stake.

Since "Power in the Blood," there have been six other books in the series—five other novels and one short story collection.
Now with the release of "Innocent Blood," it's as if the series is re-launching in a way.
"Innocent Blood, which is the first in "The Atlanta Years" series within a series, goes back to John's very first murder investigation and answers lots of questions about his past. It also includes a special Introduction by Michael Connelly, a surprise cameo, and elements of the real life case of the Atlanta Child Murders.
Here's a little about the book:
Every great character has a past.
Few are as entertaining, as thrilling, or as tragic as that of ex-cop turned prison chaplain John Jordan.
When he was twelve years old he came face to face with the man who would be convicted of the Atlanta Child Murders.
Six years later, John returned to Atlanta determined to discover who was truly responsible for all the slaughtered innocents.
But first he must ascertain whether or not LaMarcus Williams belongs on the infamous list of missing and murdered children.
The questions in the case are many, the answers few.
Who Killed LaMarcus Williams? How was he abducted from his own backyard while his mom and sister watched him? Is he a victim of the Atlanta Child Murderer that didn't make the list or is his killer still out there, still operating with impunity?
Experience the events that shaped one of the most unique characters in all of crime fiction.
Accompany John during his first spiritual awakenings, his first battles with alcoholism, his first forays and fallings into love, and his very first murder investigation.
Get answers and gain insight into the investigator, the minister, the man.
See how John Jordan took his first faltering steps toward becoming the man he is today.
Every great character has a past, but it's not often you're allowed to witness it the way you will John Jordan's in the portrait of a detective as a young man that is Innocent Blood.  
Weaving in the real-life case of the Atlanta Child Murders was an amazing experience for me. I find the case as fascinating as John does. And I think it really adds another dimension to the book and the series.
"Innocent Blood" just received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly that said the novel “combines a compelling hero’s spiritual struggle with top-notch whodunit.”
In his introduction of the book, Michael Connelly wrote, “you are in for a great ride with a very assured driver behind the wheel.”
I believe the John Jordan series to be something unusual, and utterly unique—the very definition of novel.
I’m writing about a clerical detective of a different cloth, but with respect for and understanding of Chesterton and all those who have come before me.
I'm so pleased with "Innocent Blood" and how it's being received. I hope you'll give it and the other John Jordan mysteries a try—for, as I think you’ll discover, you don’t have to be particularly religious to enjoy and be inspired by them.  

Michael Lister's website is

Innocent Blood by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 2015. ISBN 9781888146493 (hardcover), 264p.


ceblain said...

I definitely learned a lot with reading this posting today. Thank you for the great interview and posting. Lots to dwell on now.


Lesa said...

You're welcome, Cynthia. I'm glad you appreciated Michael's post.