AN UNSPEAKABLE MISSION. By Judith Campbell. Mainly Mystery Press, 2011. 262 pages. $16.95 softcover.
All mystery writers establish a niche. Oak Bluffs author Judith Campbell has a veritable portfolio of them: Her amateur sleuth, Olympia Brown, is an ordained minister. She teaches arts and religious studies at a Boston college. Through her pastoral counseling, she’s got a nose for sniffing out women in trouble and, as a minister of the progressive variety, she’s often on a crusade to root out chicanery and hypocrisy in religious circles. Oh, and she’s being romanced by a peachy English fellow who flies across the ocean whenever she’s up to her neck in dead bodies and indecipherable clues.
Rev. Campbell herself bears a curious resemblance to her protagonist: She too is an ordained minister, having helmed the pulpit for years at the Martha’s Vineyard Unitarian Universalist fellowship, she has a PhD in arts and religious studies (and also, just for an extra dash of specialness, a master’s in fine arts). Her actual peachy English fellow, Chris Stokes, has crossed the ocean for good (not that he and Rev. Judy don’t go back for yearly visits) by marrying the talented minister (she also paints, sews quilts, and writes poetry).
“I started writing my first Olympia Brown mystery over 20 years ago,” she said recently during a phone interview. But, as ever, life has a way of redecorating and rearranging all one’s plans. “I was also pursuing painting, poetry and ministry.”
Nowadays Rev. Campbell is a bellwether of a new trend rapidly gaining renown as “the third chapter,” that period in a woman’s life after children are dispersed into the world, a primary career may be jettisoned or attached to new interests, and life develops an unexpected richness. Third-chapter women may be taking things more slowly, but with reduced speed comes reflection and heightened awareness. If we’re on the right track, our hearts are opening and our egos shriveling. For writers, artists, chicken farmers and deep-sea divers alike, the third chapter can only bring a deeper luster to one’s life and work.
Judy Campbell said in our recent interview, “Having Olympia as a minister, I can concentrate on the social and cultural issues that I believe are most worth exploring.”
If this sounds as if picking up an Olympia Brown mystery will be about as stirring as a Sunday service when the organist is down with the flu, you’re sadly mistaken. As I wrote in an Oak Bluffs town column a number of weeks ago, having picked up Rev Campbell’s debut mystery, A Deadly Mission, I hadn’t been so engrossed in a detective novel since my golden age of reading Nancy Drews. And it isn’t as if the Olympia Brown stories aren’t perfectly grownup — they are, with a vengeance; that’s the social and cultural part. But Judith Campbell is inhabited by a natural storyteller’s gift of perfect pacing, creating atmospheres in which the reader loves to wander, and a set of characters with whom spending time is as comfy as pulling on your favorite fleece slippers straight from the dryer. Of course you don’t feel that way about the bad guys (or gals, as the case may be). You’re simply happy to wait to see ’em get theirs.
In the recently released second Olympia Brown saga, An Unspeakable Mission, the bad guy gets his early on in the story. He’s a vicious alcoholic burned to death in a home fire. His monstrousness to both his wife and daughter arouse the suspicions of the police; after all, this was definitely a man worth killing, especially by his so-called nearest and dearest. Rev. Brown takes an interest in the girl through their teacher/student contact at the university, and quickly comes to know and trust the mother as well. Olympia and her perfect sidekick, Catholic priest Jim Sawicki, rush to find out what really happened before mother and daughter face an unjust arrest. And of course, the peachy English guy, Frederick, flies over the ocean.
Ms. Campbell will be reading, signing books and happily answering questions at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Main street in Vinceyard Haven on Saturday, July 9, at 7:30 p.m. The mama (and grandma) side of this talented lady will be providing tempting treats, her own “deadly delicious fudge” and “unspeakably healthy multigrain bread.” Free copies of the recipes will also be provided.
“That’s one thing Olympia doesn’t do that I happen to love,” she told me. “She doesn’t cook.” And she doesn’t need to when the endlessly helpful Frederick is in the vicinity.
By the way, the deadly and unspeakably witty wordsmith calls her new detective novelist self the Sinister Minister. Find out more by logging on to MainlyMurderPress.com and Rev. Judy’s own web site, judithcampbell-holymysteries.com.