Much to praise here. Comments on “Heroes and Villains” short story first, and then my opinions about the series of books.
Stephen Grant, a senior Lutheran pastor, accepts a last-minute invitation to join his younger associate pastor Zachary at a comic convention. The setting lets readers see a younger colleague, a comic aficionado, know the scene more than the series hero. Beneath the celebrative gathering of comic writers, producers and costumed attendees we learn of differences of opinion re concepts and marketing of future projects. Disagreements grow ugly, and things—as they can do—turn dangerous.
The story’s graphic novel and comic orbit can inform and gratify a range of readers, starting with high school teens. Yet the author does not lose “seasoned” readers (like me) and even teaches along the way. Keating, in a novella-size frame, deftly assembles a small cast of recognizable action heroes to support Stephen and Zachary in thwarting the industry villains. The story’s action climax makes the reader almost see, as on a comic page, the “Pow” “Biff” “Oof” via vigorous fights and clever, believable physicality: great fun to read and see unfold.
Young and mature readers alike recognize comic characters Batman or Wonder Woman. I, for one, had never heard of the classic comic character Hawk Man, but Keating worked him in helpfully—sent me to Wikipedia (!) Without too much artifice, Keating turns the story back to Christianity and church, mostly in ways that don’t make us roll our eyes. A rollicking, fast-moving story you can enjoy in a couple hours.
Now for the book series:
Starting with the first novel, Warrior Monk, Ray Keating introduces a savvy Lutheran fighter-for-justice to the small club of clergy detective heroes who keep the faith and also solve crimes or wrestle with people problems. Think of the popular tv Grantchester stories (Anglican), Father Brown mysteries (Roman Catholic), and Rabbi Small’s sleuthing (Jewish). The Stephen Grant stories likewise manage to entertain and give food for thought about and through its Lutheran lens.
In the books we have a winsome Stephen Grant, a former Navy SEAL and special-ops CIA operative turned second-career Lutheran pastor. He sounds like Ellis Peters’ Cadfael—a former Crusader monk in Norman England who has taken the cloth—being drawn back again into combatting evil, solving adventures, refurbishing his sword/CIA-glock-wielding skills in times of need.
I hope we Lutherans can joyfully lay aside for a few hours our serious inter-church quarrels and admittedly-urgent social and political polarities to embrace these books. They embed easy-to-grasp bits of Lutheran distinctives. Without being heavy-handed, the author drops hints of what works in worship for Lutherans or what makes, for example, Christian belief different from other faiths or from secular humanism. Avoiding saccharine piety, the stories shine a light on how faith matters and how naturally faith can work for ordinary—or extraordinary— folks. The books are accessible to faith seekers as well as seasoned church-goers.
Yes—there’s bloody violence along with fast-paced action, scary evil, a little semi-graphic sex, and sad loss in Keating’s stories. Yet the moral trajectories of the core characters enlighten and encourage readers overall. OK—so Pastor Grant is married to an always well-dressed, wealthy, brilliant professional wife, and they drive (and crash sometimes) nicer cars than most of us own. But never mind: it’s “willing suspension of disbelief” in literature, after all.
Skillful in plot and description, Keating paints three-dimensional and interestingly different locations and crimes in each book. He has a writerly gift for making the action crisp. Keating researches his settings too. Example: In Water into Wine you enter with believable detail into the arcane world of wine counterfeiting, while the title subtly invokes the faith connection. In all the books you enjoy well-paced scenes, clear reminders who is who, vivid word choices, and helpful chapter divisions.
I recommend the books for the story lines as well as their Christian themes and distinctions. I hope Keating sets some future stories in Lutheran missions overseas or other homelands (Ethiopia? a school in Madagascar? the Seminary at Westfield House in Cambridge?) Or maybe he will take his heroes into smaller parishes in the U.S. Midwest or South with rich pasts and dark problems to solve.