Thursday, November 04, 2010

REVIEW: Michael Lister's 'The Body and the Blood'

WEWAHITCHKA — After exploring other characters and locales in his recent titles, “Thunder Beach” and the critically acclaimed “Double Exposure,” author Michael Lister returns to his original mystery series about prison chaplain John Jordan in his latest novel, “The Body and the Blood.”

Jordan is an ex-cop and a recovering alcoholic who is working to reconcile with his estranged wife. He’s flawed, but trying to fix his problems. He’s a man of faith who struggles to reconcile grace and justice while working with the worst offenders the state can gather into one place — fictional Pottersville Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison situated in the piney woods of rural Northwest Florida.

Lister lives in Wewahitchka, where many residents work at nearby Gulf Correctional Institution, a model for PCI and its environs. In the early 1990s, Lister was the youngest chaplain within the state Department of Corrections, and for almost a decade, he served as a contract, staff or senior chaplain at three prison facilities in the Panhandle.

Lister further identifies himself with the small towns, deep woods and river swamps of North Florida. It is one reason he is proud to be considered a “regional writer,” a topic he covered in an inspirational address at last weekend’s Local Books Alive event at the Bay County Public Library.

This unique combination of spiritual calling and life experiences led to Lister’s first novel, “Power in the Blood” (1997), which introduced Jordan, his sealed-off world and sense of personal isolation. Jordan seeks to save the lives, if not necessarily the souls, of some of the state’s hardest hearts. And Lister realistically takes us with Jordan through the gates and looping razor wire into the claustrophobic and dangerous depths of a massive prison.

As the new story unfolds, inmate Justin Menge is found dead; he was a key witness against an accused rapist. The suspect list fills fast, but the mystery is great: The dead man’s cell was locked, and the body is found across the room from the pool of blood, lying on unstained sheets.

It’s a compelling locked-room whodunit, with personal issues connecting Jordan emotionally to the crime. There also is an exploration of identity that takes many forms as the various characters move through the storyline, not the least of which is Jordan’s own struggle with who he is and who he wants to be.

Jordan is tough but not mean; he has a strong moral compass, but often fails to live up to his own standards. He knows the dangers of his chosen path, but braves them for the sake of the humanity he wants to believe is still inside even those who have fallen the farthest — because, if they can be saved, then maybe he can too.
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This review appeared in today's Entertainer insert in The News Herald and online here.

Full disclosure: Michael is a friend of mine, and his imprint published my novel, 'Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century.' He has been an inspiration to me and many, many writers in this region. You may want to take that into account when digesting this review, or you could take my word for it: If you enjoy mysteries and crime novels, and you appreciate tales of believers struggling in a harsh world, you'll like this book.
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