Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Michael Lister: The Body and the Blood

Author:  Michael Lister
John Jordan series
Title: The Body and the Blood
Mystery Type:  Ex-Law Enforcement Officer
Setting:  Contemporary, northern Florida
Detective:  John Jordan, prison chaplain

This is one of two series that Michael Lister is writing at this time.  The Body and the Blood is the fourth in the "John Jordan" series, the first of which is Power in the Blood (1997).  He also has another series featuring a P. I. operating out of northern Florida and a number of standalone novels.

This is the first in the "John Jordan" series that I've read, but that didn't pose much of a problem.  Lister was able to sneak in needed background material without being too obvious or providing long expository paragraphs.

This is a family-oriented novel.  Jordan's father is the sheriff of the county where the prison is located, and his brother (no love lost there on either side) is a deputy.  The officer in charge of the investigation just happens to be Jordan's father-in-law, or to be precise, recently reinstated father-in-law.   Jodan's wife had divorced him, but for some reason had failed to file the papers and, therefore,  they had recently discovered that they were still married.   Now, they were attempting a reconciliation.  Daniels, the father-in-law,  is a recovering alcoholic and has gotten past the initial stages.  He has changed considerably, and all, including Jordan, are very pleased with the new Daniels.

Jordan is a chaplain at Potter Correctional Institution, located between Panama City and Tallahassee Florida.  He has received a tip that somebody will be murdered there, date, time, and place provided.  Jordan notified the prison authorities and decided to be present himself at the specified time.  Daniels, who is the Inspector General of the Florida Department of Corrections, is also present because one of the prisoners, Justin Menge, is a prosecution witness in a case that Daniels is personally interested in.

The murder is supposed to take place in the Protective Management (PM)  unit at the prison.  The inmates in this section are those who would be in serious danger if they were housed with the general prison population.  Former members of law enforcement agencies, the judicial branch, homosexuals, and child killers are examples of those found in a PM unit. At time of the murder, the Catholic Chaplain has come to the unit to hold Mass for the inmates.  The mass is being said in the hallway very near the cell doors.

Jordan and Daniels attend Mass with their attention obviously elsewhere--seeing who is there, who is absent, and who is moving about.  Near the end of the service, Jordan notices blood slowly seeping out from under the door of one of the cells.  They find the cell door locked and need to call in to have it released.  All locks are electronic and need to be opened or locked by a guard at the entry port to the unit.  Inside the locked cell is a dead man.  Neither Jordan nor Daniels had seen anyone, except for the victim, Justin Menge,  whose cell this is, enter the cell nor leave it.  It's a classic locked-room mystery, with the added complication of it being in a prison and under observation at all times.

Daniels asks Jordan to assist him on the case, as Jordan is far more familiar with the prison and the staff and inmates than he is.  Jordan agrees, for a variety of reasons.  One is that he enjoys being a detective and feels that he can be a chaplain and an investigator at the same time.  As to be expected, Jordan spends more time in investigating than he does being a chaplain.

The two questions facing  Jordan are why and how.  Once those questions are answered, figuring out who shouldn't be a problem.  There are a number of possible motives, each of which brings in a different set of suspects.  Menge was in the PM unit because he was a homosexual.  He and Chris Sobel were partners.  Was there someone who was jealous of Menge?

In addition, there had been a serious lack of communication among the staff: the person Menge was going to testify against was housed in the same unit.  Menge's death obviously was welcome news to the prisoner. Was he or someone employed by him responsible?  Or Menge could have learned something concerning either a prisoner or a staff member that brought about his death.

Jordan has some issues of his own to contend with.  His reconciliation with his wife and his relationship to a woman whom he had known for almost his entire life are causing him problems for he must choose between them.   Secondly, there's a violent side to him which is being exacerbated by his contact with the prisoners.  As one of the characters in the novel observes, prison changes everybody, and not just the prisoners. 

Jordan spends some time developing the north Florida region in the novel and also the prison setting, both of which are convincing and informative.  I've never been to Florida so I can't comment on the correspondance to the real northern Florida area, but I did teach a class or two every semester for at least five years at several prisons in Arizona.  While I never got as deeply involved as Jordan does, I found nothing in the depiction of the prison setting to contradict my own experiences and memories of teaching there.  

It's an interesting series, and I'm curious as where it goes.  I am planning on reading the first book,  Power in the Blood, because I would like to see if Jordan is still the same in the fourth book as he is in the first book in the series.

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