Years ago I had a professor in graduate school who would pause in the middle of class, tilt his head back in thought, eyes closed, and say, “Let me tell you a story of no consequence…” He would then tell us a story related to our topic but not overtly so, which meant we had to figure out what the story–often drawn from his personal experience–had to do with the subject matter. Then he would lower his head and, with an impish grin, fire his finger at each of us as we tried to answer his probing, prodding questions.
The man was a biblical scholar, and his stories demonstrated how biblical themes often reappear throughout modern life like an underground spring occasionally breaking the surface. He was also a storyteller, and his stories were open-ended, as entertaining as modern parables. Years after that I gained more insight into the man himself by working with his sister, an editor for a liturgical journal in Silver Spring, Maryland (see The Motherhood of Ginny Sloyan).
I have now created a fictional character based on this professor. The character is the protagonist of a murder-mystery novel in the world of Jesuit higher education. For those unfamiliar with the Jesuits, they are an order of priests and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church established in 1540 and specializing in education, research, and social ministries. They have a reputation for being elite, disciplined, and highly effective in the pursuit of their goals. The famous Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton, himself no slouch, referred to them as “monsters of efficiency.”
The character I created served as a chaplain for the NYPD in the Bronx for thirty years and so has experience with homicide investigations and the workings of the criminal mind (see Black and Blue). Combined with his Jesuit training in the discernment of spirits and an uncanny ability to read people, he is the ideal candidate to conduct an unofficial investigation into what appears to be the accidental death of a student at a college in the Northeast. He is a trusted advisor to the student’s family, and they ask him to find out the truth about what happened to their son.
With help from the student’s girlfriend, who is from a wealthy, wine-producing family in Argentina and who acts as his Dr. Watson, he discovers that the death was anything but accidental. The student was murdered in an act of calculated betrayal and jealousy, although the plot is anything but obvious. Together, they uncover so many leads and suspects that he uses my professor’s technique to test people by seeing how they react to his stories.
“Let me tell you a story of no consequence…” he begins, launching into a story that more often than not leads nowhere and has no apparent structure other than as a sort of koan or haiku. He finishes and then waits for the reaction. Innocent people look at him puzzled or amused; the guilty can’t help but panic and pace the floor. The stories come from the protagonist’s personal experience as a man, priest, and Jesuit, just as they came from my professor.
In the story, the characters betray each other in different ways. This includes our detective, who feels betrayed by an order that he believes has turned its back on its original mission of saving souls for Christ and swearing obedience to the pope. He does not want to return to 1540, but neither does he believe that truth exists on a sliding scale. He is not anachronistic or a fossil, although he can be cantankerous and impatient. He is a man of contradiction, aware of his flaws but keeping them under control. He is also compassionate and, like the actual professor he is based on, the last of his breed–a gentleman.
And the stories he tells? Collectively, they are about those same biblical themes of death, revenge, betrayal, loyalty, sacrifice, sin, and redemption, although with a folksy veneer meant to draw in the listener. He does that to help solve the murder, but in the end the stories also teach us how to prepare for death. Isn’t that what the best stories do? And some, he admits, are even true.
Image credits: feature image by iam_os; others by Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев and Mili K. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli.