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BOOK REVIEW: Bishop plays key role in new mystery novel Joan G. LaBarr, Nov 24, 2011
By Joan G. La Barr Special Contributor
The Dead Saint Marilyn Brown Oden Abingdon Press, 2011 Paperback, 480 pages
It is a tranquil day in the French Quarter. Two New Orleans Saints teammates laugh as they cross Decatur Street. No one hears the shot, but one Saint, a kicker from Sarajevo, collapses in a pool of blood.
Life is about to take a radical turn for Bishop Lynn Peterson, who moments before sipped café au lait as she polished her lecture for a bishops’ gathering in Vienna. Lynn notices a still figure, a red-wigged mime, near the fence. As she kneels beside the body of Elias Darwish and comforts his Pro Bowl linebacker friend Bubba Broussard, the image of the mime fixes in her mind.
In the midst of the chaos, Bubba grabs his dead friend’s mysterious medal and entrusts it to Lynn to deliver to Elias’ mother during her upcoming trip to Europe.
So begins The Dead Saint, award-winning author Marilyn Brown Oden’s novel of mystery, international intrigue and downright scary national political machinations. In her 11th book and second major work of fiction, Ms. Oden draws on her experiences as world traveler on six continents, liaison for a U.S. congressman, counselor, spiritual director and United Methodist bishop’s spouse to concoct a tale of spellbinding drama with a subtle, but powerful, undercurrent of spirituality.
Ms. Oden creates a world where women, like Lynn and newly-elected President of the United States Helen Benedict, have an understanding of power with potential to upset the status quo, particularly that of one of the most powerful members of the president’s inner circle.
As events unfold, the Saint is not the only one assassinated, and both bishop and president become potential targets. There is plenty of suspense to keep the reader moving through the short chapters. There are twists and turns of plot that leave the reader reconsidering initial impressions of the characters. In Lynn’s new world, nothing is quite as it first appears.
Ms. Oden purposely avoids identifying her main character’s denomination. Some reviews have assumed United Methodist, others Episcopalian. Obviously, given her gender, the options are limited, but to make assumptions does an injustice to the author’s intent. The author had some twists and turns of her own as the story evolved. Ms. Oden acknowledges that her plots develop with her characters, and often she does not know how they are going to get out of predicaments she creates.
Characters can change too. She said in a Dallas presentation that in the book’s initial version, Lynn was a bishop’s spouse. One day she had a revelation that Lynn should be the bishop and her husband, Galen, became a history professor at Tulane University.
There are moments of tension and tenderness between the two, but this is no James Bond thriller depending on sex scenes to spice up the plot. Finally, the mystery transcends unraveling the identities of the villains and heroes (and the discovery that some characters are simultaneously both).
Ms. Oden delves into the heart of the mystery in a worship scene as Lynn once again finds herself in the hands of the church. It is a place: “Where the mystery of faith—and there is mystery—is neither definable nor describable, because it is just that, a Mystery. A Mystery of Faith. Reliable. Undeniable. Viable.”
The Dead Saint is published by Abingdon Press. Ms. Oden, who says that her favorite job—except for writing—was teaching spiritual formation at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with her husband, retired United Methodist Bishop William B. Oden.
The Rev. La Barr is the former director of communications for the North Texas Conference.