At first glance, it might seem strange that Brad Reynolds’ first novel is a murder mystery.
Reynolds is, after all, a Jesuit priest.
But that fact, in Reynolds’ view at least, makes him the perfect choice as a pulp chronicler of the ultimate sin.
Because, he explained during a recent phone interview from his Portland office, “If anyone’s going to know anything about sin, it’s going to be a priest.”
Reynolds laughed when he said that. In fact, during the course of a 30-odd-minute interview, Reynolds laughed a lot. He may laugh all through the reading of his first novel, “The Story Knife,” which he’s scheduled to give tonight at Auntie’s Bookstore.
But don’t be fooled. Reynolds, 48, is both a man of God and an experienced writer who sees his ability to weave stories as a perfect melding of his spiritual interests and his worldly talents.
A 1966 graduate of Gonzaga Preparatory School who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Gonzaga University, Reynolds took as his first church assignment a job as a reporter for the Catholic newspaper The General Exchange.
He’s done a lot of other writing, too, including pairing up with a fellow Jesuit to author a couple of articles on indigenous peoples of Alaska for National Geographic magazine.
It was when he began mulling over what to do during a scheduled sabbatical that the notion of writing a book virtually jumped into Reynolds’ head.
“I hadn’t planned on doing anything,” he said. “I’d planned on sitting on a porch somewhere and watching the sun.” But when asked what he was going to do, the words just popped out: “Oh, I’m going to write a book.”
The subject came even more naturally. “The Story Knife” (Avon, 246 pages, $5.50 paperback) involves a Jesuit priest, Father Mark Townsend, whose experiences while living in Alaska make him an invaluable source of information for the detectives investigating a brutal Seattle murder.
Seems someone has used a traditional Eskimo knife to fillet a lawyer, and Townsend ends up helping find the murderer.
Like his protagonist, Reynolds knows Alaska - both the geography in general and the Eskimo and Athabascan cultures in specific. He knows Seattle - much of the book was written in that city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood - and he knows Jesuits.
“So it was natural to put those together in a novel,” he said. “The main elements, the key ingredients, were things that I already knew about. Then it was just coming up with the story.”
Oh, yeah. The murder part.
Unlike many of us, Reynolds hadn’t read much of today’s top mystery writers. He was familiar with Sherlock Holmes but not with such names as Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen or James Lee Burke. He set out to correct that in a hurry.< And he discovered something interesting.
“I don’t want to make a big deal of this,” Reynolds said, “but it really does seem to me that there are some of the elements in mystery writing that would correspond with the old medieval morality plays. I mean, you have a hero who is confronting deadly sins - the evil in the world. It’s almost a caricature of it, and he has to overcome all these obstacles.”
So if underneath it all you want to write about such concepts as mercy, justice, temperance and truth - “which,” Reynolds said, “are all the elements that you’re trying to bring in” - you couldn’t find a better genre in which to do so than the murder mystery.
“Really, in a sense, it’s another way of getting out the message in a way that is very popular and that people are willing to pick up and read,” Reynolds said.
Avon Books is betting on that much, at least. After finishing “The Story Knife” (the first draft was completed in three months of four-hour workdays), and finding an agent out of a phone book, Reynolds was offered a two-book contract.
The second Mark Townsend mystery - working title “Pull & Be Damned” - is due in June, and Reynolds is still doing research in anticipation of writing a third. It will, like the first two, involve his Jesuit protagonist interacting with “another subculture, and it’s going to raise some other priestly issues for him,” he said.
Reynolds doesn’t know how long the series will last. Since all the money goes to the Jesuits’ Oregon Province, for whom he holds a day job as overseer of education and training, financial remuneration is not an issue.
He just knows that as long as the series does last, he will use Townsend both as a way of addressing moral issues and of showing people what the life of a Jesuit priest is like.
“There’s a Jesuit phrase to the effect that we are devoting our lives to a faith that does justice,” Reynolds said. “And I’m keeping that in front of me, that maybe there’s a way that this Mark Townsend can live that out - live out of his faith but do so in a way that addresses justice issues.”
You know, murders and the like.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: READING Father Brad Reynolds, S.J., will read from his novel “The Story Knife” at 7:30 tonight at Auntie’s Bookstore, Main and Washington in Spokane, and at 2 today at Camlu Apartments, 600 Best Ave. in Coeur d’Alene.