Murder in the Church
A Kill, a Cop
and a Sleep Walking Priest
Shoehorned in behind Toronto Eaton Centre—a modern glass and steel edifice where shoppers worship en masse at the altar of consumerism—sits The Church of the Holy Trinity, AD 1847. For more than a century and a half the Anglican Church, the fictional setting for Mary Lou Dickinson’s (One Day It Happens, Ile D’or, Would I Lie to You?) murder mystery, The White Ribbon Man, has experienced more than its share of indignities.
The old grey church in the square has never had an easy go of it. The Gothic Revival structure was originally constructed on swampy land at the forested outskirts of a fledgling city with funds bequeathed to the Toronto diocese by an English heiress who wouldn’t survive past her twenty-fifth birthday. Eventually situated in a slum neighborhood known as The Ward, Holy Trinity fast became a life raft for an impoverished community drowning in urban squalor.
Throughout its long history and up to the present, Holy Trinity has faced threats from fire, the wrecking ball, expropriation, and bankruptcy. A couple of years ago an arsonist tried, but mercifully failed, to torch the place of worship. If that weren’t bad enough, ongoing construction in the vicinity appears to have caused significant structural damage to sections of the church’s limestone walls.
For 171 years Holy Trinity has taken these abuses in stride. Then along comes Dickinson’s page turner. The novel opens pleasantly enough on a sunny, autumn Sunday morning as regular congregants and strangers alike greet one another in the welcoming, inclusive spirit that defines Holy Trinity. Pleasantries are quickly dashed when, minutes before the service is to commence, a congregant discovers the fashionably dressed corpse of Marni Atchison, an outcast from a religious organization known for sermonizing on porches and crowded sidewalks, her stylish, red heels jutting from under a bathroom stall in the basement.
Will the indignities ever end?
To solve the crime Dickinson adeptly plugs into the veins of activism that course through the congregation. Parishioners may be alarmed by the heinous crime that has occurred in their house of worship but they refuse to cower. While some make efforts to clear their name, with the assistance of kindly homicide detective Jack Cosser and partner Steve Reid whose sexual orientation is currently in flux, sleuthing members set out to solve the murder.
The White Ribbon Man disposes of predictable mystery novel devices and unlike some authors working in the genre today who revel in scripting pages of gory violence, Dickinson’s approach falls closer to an old school Dashiell Hammett potboiler, minus the hardboiled detective and foreboding mood. Instead of plucking characters straight out of central casting like a gruff, jaded homicide detective or the benevolent and wise clergyman, Dickinson turns these types on their head.
There is no getting around the fact that Detective Cosser is, well, a swell guy. Heck, he’d rather have a soothing spot of chamomile tea over black coffee any day. Cosser’s marriage may have flat-lined, a casualty of the emotional toll his grisly occupation can have, but not once does he trash talk his ex to fellow officers or the couple’s preteen daughter who Cosser loves to bits.
The author gives Father David, the collarless, blue jean wearing priest a similar refreshing treatment. The man leading the flock is self-absorbed, insecure and suffers from chronic somnambulism. Throughout, the sleepwalking priest struggles to fill sizable gaps in his memory, wide enough to navigate Noah’s Ark through. Is he the culprit? Not even Father David can say for certain.
Rosemary the sleuthing librarian may be the best hope for solving the homicide but admittedly, her crime fighting knowhow is limited to skills gleaned from episodes of Homicide, Life on the Street. Did Rosemary encounter the killer after responding to a personal ad in the classifieds agreeing to a luncheon date with a redheaded stranger, a white ribbon pinned to his lapel? Was she the intended victim? Is the key to tracking a killer lie with Ardith, nonverbal and confined to a wheelchair vis-à-via Jimmy Stewart’s character in Hitchcock’s Rear Window?
The plot of Dickinson’s thriller is not complex. She writes with intentionality leaving nothing to chance. The author’s strength lies in fleshing out diverse characters who display the best, as well as the most deplorable aspects of human nature. Although events unfold primarily in the church, in respect to the institution, The White Ribbon Man is not reverential. However, there are moments when the reader is subjected to what feels like mini sermons on Dickinson’s behalf. For example, upon arriving at the crime scene Detective Cosser observes the crowd of homeless milling about and laments, “Soon winter will come and one of these men could die of the cold out there.”
In the end, The White Ribbon Man provides a sobering parable reinforcing lessons on the destructive nature shame can wield over individuals obsessed with hiding past deeds and the blinding influence of hypocrisy.
Edward Brown is an author and freelance writer. His work appears in the Globe & Mail, Torstar, Spacing Magazine and other publications.