When Victoria Trumbull, my 92-year-old poet sleuth, writes her weekly column for the Island Enquirer and needs just the right word, she occasionally glances up from her typewriter at the white-steepled Congregational church in the distant village center. For three centuries, villagers have looked to the church for guidance, whether spiritual, to see by the weathervane which way the wind blows, to check the time on the town clock, or to find an inspired word.
The church has always been such an important part of village life, it naturally figures in village death as well. A perfect setting for a mystery.
But clergymen don’t get involved in murder. Do they?
At one time, my real life Congregational church had a real minister called “Jack.” Why not a mystery about feuding ministers, both called “Jack,” and, since my titles include plant names, call it Jack in the Pulpit?
For days I puzzled over the situation. What could possibly arouse murderous feelings in the souls of two clergymen? I finally decided I had to simply write, and stop playing computer solitaire. Since I don’t plot, I figured the story would work itself out eventually, and I’d learn as I went along what motivated my two Jacks.
And sure enough, the story unfolded. The Reverend John (Jack) Hutchinson and his wife Maddy decide to retire after twenty years, and they turn their church over to the Reverend Milton (Jack) Jackson and his wife Betty, along with generous offers of help. The new Reverend Jack and his wife Betty resent the help, which they see as interference. Of course, all hell breaks loose.
One elderly parishioner after another drops dead. All but one have left handsome beneficences to the church.
Villagers take sides. Victoria, loyal to the old Reverend Jack, is convinced that the new Reverend Jack is killing off his parishioners.
Cousin Edna, outraged by Victoria’s suspicions, supports the new Reverend Jack. “Look how he’s built up attendance,” she says. “Churchgoers can understand the sermons, now they’re not filled with pompous literary allusions. The church budget will finally balance. In fact, it may have a surplus.”
“Popery,” mutters Victoria, referring to the new Reverend Jack’s weekly communion service and the gilded cross he’s hung behind the pulpit. “Ambulance chaser.”
That’s how the story begins. Victoria was still driving a car in Chapter One, but she loses her license after backing into the Meals on Wheels van. Her granddaughter Elizabeth is stalked by her ex-husband. Mushroom quiches, stuffed bluefish, chicken soup fly back and forth, appearing and disappearing on neighbors’ kitchen tables, the way food does in real life on our Island.
At precisely fifteen minutes before ten o’clock every Sunday morning, the church sexton climbs the steps partway to the choir loft and pulls the bell rope. Before the bell begins to sound, the rope rises with a rumble through a smoothed hole in the flooring of the choir loft, rubbing off a dusting of wood as it has for three centuries. Then the bell swings in the steeple and starts to peal. The bright sound carries all the way to Victoria’s house and beyond. Time enough for her to get her hat on, settle in her regular pew, and listen to the sermon by Jack. In the pulpit, natch.
Jack in the Pulpit, St. Martin’s Minotaur, Thomas Dunne Books, 2004, is the fourth of eleven books in the Martha’s Vineyard mystery series featuring 92-year-old poet Victoria Trumbull. The others in the series are Deadly Nightshade, 2001; The Cranefly Orchid Murders, 2002; The Cemetery Yew, 2003; The Paperwhite Narcissus, 2005; Indian Pipes, 2006; Shooting Star, 2007; Double Murder on Martha’s Vineyard, (paperback edition of Deadly Nightshade and The Cranefly Orchid Murders,)2007 ; Death and Honesty, 2009; Touch-Me-Not, 2010; The Bee Balm Murders, 2011; Victoria Trumbull’s Martha’s Vineyard (a guidebook), 2011; Poison Ivy, 2013/2015; Bloodroot (in press), 2016