[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”149829989X” locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/51fJcjFhxkL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”232″]A Particular Death-in-Life
A Review of
Do We Not Bleed? A Jon Mote Mystery
Hardback: Slant Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Heather Caliri
Can I confess something? I dislike Father Brown.
G.K. Chesterton, august Christian apologist, whose prose helped convert C.S. Lewis, created the humble everypriest sleuth. In each story, the curate faces down the sharpest criminal minds in England and wipes the floor with them—with Christian charity, of course.
I have no beef with the writing. In each story’s brief pages, Chesterton sketched derring-do with humor and panache. Each episode also features a genuine puzzler.
But it felt like Chesterton kept his finger on the scale of Christianity’s strengths. Unbelievers were always arrogant and wrong-headed, their objections to morality and God flimsy as soggy bread. Of course the Christians saw the world correctly; of course anyone who disagreed was not simply wrong, but disagreeable.
Other writers of faith have written mysteries—Dorothy Sayers, for instance, or PD James. But their books explore themes of faith without really attempting to argue readers closer to it, at least not as directly as Chesterton.
So I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy Daniel Taylor’s Do We Not Bleed, the second installment in his Jon Mote mystery series. I winced when I read what one endorser called Taylor’s first book: “a metaphysical page-turner.”
I worried I’d encounter some authorial smugness.
But I found compassion instead.
In Taylor’s whodunit, the protagonist, accidental detective Jon Mote, becomes involved in the death of a resident of a group home for the developmentally disabled. Mote works at the home, caring for its diverse residents, which include his sister, Judy.
Not long before the book opens, Mote nearly committed suicide. His struggle to shore up his fragile mental state undergirds the mystery. Alienated from his ex-wife Zillah, his faith, and himself, Mote struggles to figure out his purpose on earth when he no longer believes in a benevolent God.
And here lies the first difference with Father Brown: the central character of the novel is agnostic at best, but Taylor portrays him with real empathy. In Taylor’s hands, Mote has good reason to doubt his faith, not least after experiencing abuse at the hands of a Bible-thumping relative.
Abuse is a familiar pain to me. A wolf in sheep’s clothing shaped my early years as a Christian. Because of that, apologetics for faith often strike me as beside the point. Many who keep God at arm’s distance do so not because of ideas but because they’re in pain.
When Christ’s hands and feet on earth abuse their authority, they leave real scars that don’t go away with better hermeneutics. Only through loving relationships—with Christ, yes, but also with other Christians—can we reconcile the abused back to the church.
It’s by modeling those healing relationships that Taylor also wooed me.
First, Mote’s cynicism softens because of the simplistic but whole faith of his disabled sister, who clings to Jesus in the midst of every circumstance. As Mote leans more and more on her strength, he realizes her “intellectual disability” isn’t a liability. His brain works mostly as expected, but it rarely gives him joy. In contrast, Judy is simply happy.
Mote is also transformed by his relationships with his clients, who both exasperate and inspire him. Taylor spends much of the first half of the novel creating whole characters of each of the residents: Bonita with her foul mouth and steel spine, JP, whose kind eagerness to please lands him in hot water, and Jimmy, enthusiastic as he is hapless.
Fans of Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen will recognize how Jon’s relationships with the developmentally disabled help him repair his identity as God’s beloved. By leaning into caregiving, Mote learns to leave the caustic cynicism of his head and become more present in the lives of other people.
Finally, Jon’s cynicism is eased by an encounter with Sister Brigit, a nun who used to work at the group home. In contrast to Judy’s simple faith, Sister Brigit’s is unsentimental, intellectual, and sharp-tongued. In the nun, Mote finds a model of how empathy can put flesh on the deathless skeleton of academic theory and make ideas loving.
As a full-fledged novel, then, Taylor’s characters create a gripping, empathetic portrait of someone coming back to life through loving real people. It’s a cautious progression—the gains Mote makes by the end of the novel aren’t the stuff of revival testimonies. But they’re human and full of Christ’s grace.
If I had a quibble with the novel, it would be that Mote’s voice—which exemplifies his self-centeredness, his ‘meta’ attitude, and his cynicism, grew tiresome. It’s part of the point of the novel, that Mote himself is bored by his endless circular logic. But sometimes, I wished I could be free of the confines of the first-person narration and take in the flesh and blood that surrounded Mote, rather than his intellectualized mastication of reality.
I also found the exchanges between Mote and his ex-wife Zillah less than compelling. If any part of the novel struck me as a Christian’s idea about how faith-challenged people think and act, it was that relationship. One of the climaxes of the novel, in which Zillah reveals a secret that shook her self-possession, didn’t feel authentic to me. Perhaps I didn’t believe Taylor’s portrayal of a woman in turmoil; perhaps I just wanted to like Zillah more.
But considering that this is Taylor’s second installment in a series about Mote, I might have missed key details that would have made that possible. Despite the gaps in my knowledge of the Mote universe, I found it compelling. It’s one I’ll visit again.
Reading Taylor, I was struck again by the oddness of the mystery genre. It’s strange to use brutality as a framing device for a story about love. It’s odd to think that a murder might be a useful hook for faithful Christians to explore questions of meaning, worth, and redemption. Maybe, as Professor Peter Erb, of Wilfrid Laurier University put it, it’s because “Christianity [itself] is one big murder mystery.”
In the midst of life we are in death, claims a medieval Latin chant. By examining and imagining a particular death-in-life, Taylor draws us all closer to the edge of our everyday reality. In the process, we become more convinced that life, in all its variety, is very much worth living.