Was blind, but now I see.

1 : 3 January 2002




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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


(D. J. Delffs. The Judas Tree. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN 55438. 1999.)

Cover illustration of 'The Judas Tree' by David Uttley Design, courtesy: Bethany House Publishers


Everyone reads detective fiction avidly, but often it is not rated high despite masterful language and narration. Detective fiction often performs the function of diversion for those who are otherwise engaged (or claim to be engaged) in a stressful vocation, concentrated research, and/or on matters of importance. Detective fiction has become a great companion for travelers. However, the place of detective fiction as a sub-genre within the discipline of Christian Literature is not certain. Is it because the detective novels that claim to be part of Christian fiction continue to focus more on entertainment, logic, reason, and suspense than on the transforming ministry of Jesus Christ? The novel under study here, The Judas Tree, is no exception to this general state of condition. However, this does not mean that this novel is not well written. Indeed, the strength of The Judas Tree is the excellent narrative style of the author, and the story itself with so many twists and turns. It is a fascinating story with good depiction of characters and events.


Father Grif's reluctant involvement in solving the mystery of the gruesome murder of his old friend, Dr. Simon Hostetler, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Penn State University, in the Tremont Amish settlement in Tennessee is narrated in this detective novel of distinction with a language that is powerful and descriptive.

Dr. Hostetler was a one time resident of the Amish community, but was not a member of the community. He grew up in the community. He returned to the settlement apparently with the mission of studying it from an anthropological perspective, but confided in Father Grif that he hoped to reconnect with an Amish woman whom he knew from his childhood. He also said: "I'm on to something that must be exposed in Tremont." But, alas, all on a sudden, the news came that Dr. Simon Hostetler was found hanged on a tree, called the Judas Tree by the locals. The question raised was, "Did Simon kill himself? Or was he murdered?"


The Judas Tree, a stately oak, was perhaps two hundred years old, "with thick branches that hide as many secrets as winter acorns for the squirrels." The oak tree marked the boundary between the farms of two brothers. One of the brothers didn't believe in owning slaves, but the other owned slaves. Both the brothers joined the Confederate Army. While one of them was killed in fighting, the other was spying for the Union operating from within the Confederate Army. After his brother's death, he killed himself by hanging from the stately oak tree. The legend did not stop there. Virgil Caulfield, a black man from Montgomery, Alabama, was accused of raping and killing a white woman in the woods near the Judas Tree. After one year, he was found hanging from the Judas Tree. Simon Hostetler is now the third victim. "Will his death prove to be as mysterious as his tragic predecessors? Does Robert Wallace's ghost haunt the tree? Was Vigil Caulfield punished by fate? Only the two-centuries' old massive oak known as the Judas Tree knows," wrote the local newspaper.


The story is not just about the murder of Dr. Simon Hostetler. It is also about Father Grif's developing relationship with Caroline Barr. Dr.Barr, a professor of English at the Avenell University, was seen to be a non-believer by the curious members of his Episcopal congregation. Their question was, "was it prudent for you to date a non-believer?" Was she really a non-believer? His curate, Peter, was in love with an Amish girl, Leah, and was allowed to stay in the community with the understanding that he had to decide on his relationship and future life with Leah soon. Was he going to join the community, or would Leah be willing to leave the community, leaving her parents and relatives and the community of which she was a part? Father Grif's spinster sister now has a polished suitor, Rev. Lyle Slater of the Avenell First Christian Church. His sister always had a crush on John Greenwood, an official of the Rockmont State Penitentiary. Will this change now?


Hypotheses after hypotheses about how and why Dr. Simon Hostetler might have died or been murdered cropped up in the mind of Father Grif. He even thought: "Perhaps Simon had ventured too close to some military secret. Even if he had, surely even General Bledsoe himself wouldn't choose to hang a man and implicate the Amish. Or would he? What if Simon had stumbled onto something, perhaps even some secret from the past? Maybe the military were vandalizing Amish farms to pressure them into a land deal. Like all of my morning's hypotheses, it seemed too tenuous, with too many missing pieces."


The novel is full of suspenseful events. Leah, the Amish girlfriend of Peter, the curate of Father Grif, was kidnapped. Father Grif locates a sort of cemetery close to the Amish land. It so turns out to be the "Potter's field."

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, "It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money." So they decided to use the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day" (Matthew 27:5-8)


Father Grif locates the grave of Robert Wallace, the younger brother who spied for the Union while serving the Confederate. He also located a strange grave, for the father of Dr. Simon Hostetler, Caleb Hostetler, with a mocking epitaph "The Lord Have Mercy." Simon's father was ostracized but was buried close to the Amish community. The mystery thus deepened further. Father Grif wondered, "if his (Caleb's) desire for a married woman thirty years ago had anything to do with his son's death last week."


More interesting things and unexpected twists took place, however. Father Grif received an envelope with a letter from the "research assistant" of Dr. Simon Hostetler. She was actually not his research assistant. She wrote:

"Father Reed,
By this time you probably have many questions about Simon's death and my relationship to him. As you may know by now, I was not Dr. Hostetler's research assistant. My real name is Myra Gaither and I work for the Omega Group, a corporation that develops environmental remediation for toxic waste sites. We often work with the EPA to catch violators of environmental laws and bring them to trial.
For several years now, we have known that large shipments of toxic wastes from the Tenleco Paper Company have been disappearing into the Dolby Air Force Base. All attempts to question leaders at the military have been thwarted.
I enlisted the help of Dr. Hostetler several months ago, and he came to believe as I do that the Amish farms of Tremont are in danger. Under the guise of his research project, we have been attempting to gather evidence of our suspicions.
What we've found has confirmed that the military base has indeed been burying the Tenleco toxins on the property purchased from the Amish thirty years ago. In fact, the toxic waste is leeching into the soils and waters of Amish farmland along the bordering property.
However, when Simon was murdered, most of our evidence died with him. Our soil and water samples disappeared. While new ones can be gathered, I feel it is time that I take matters directly in hand and discover undeniable evidence of the crimes committed against the Amish people. By the time you finish reading this, I will be on my way to Dolby Air Force Base to uncover the conclusive evidence needed to stop the murderers from taking more lives.
Simon trusted you, and I'm taking a chance that the military brass has not bought you out like it seems to have everyone else. I know this must all sound strange, but please believe me.
Meet me after dark at the Judas Tree. If I don't show up by midnight with the evidence needed to bring the truth to light, then call the press and look for my body somewhere on the Dolby base.
Sincerely, Myra Gaither."

It so turns out at the end that the general in the Air Force Base, General Bledsoe, was behind terrorizing the Amish community so that they would surrender their lands. The story began with the possibility of personal vengeance and disasters from within the Amish community, but ended with some scandal relating to environmental protection, etc.


As I said in the beginning, the place of detective fiction within literature is uncertain, and has been ambivalent. Its place within Christian literature is more so. The present novel is eminently readable, but to look at it as Christian fiction is stretching the point to some extent. But, then, we may not all agree upon a common definition of Christian fiction itself!


The detective novels emerged as a noteworthy literary genre only in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the publication of the Mémoires (1829-29) by François-Eugène Vidocq, the founder of the first-ever detective bureau in France. Edgar Allan Poe's novels brought respectability to the genre that has been despised by the literary giants. Sherlock Holmes continues to gladden the hearts of millions around the world even today. Yet one notices a love-hate relationship even between the authors of detective novels and the genre itself. It appears that several leading literary men and women chose to write detective fiction with pseudonyms for fear of being branded as workers of lesser ability and producers of cheap entertainment! The British poet-laureate C. Day Lewis wrote detective novels under the pen name Nicholas Blake. Dorothy L. Sayer, a highly successful writer of detective fiction in her time (early twentieth century) gave it up totally in favor of religious drama and translation. G. K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown, it is reported, "was sometimes inclined to belittle his work in this field in favor of his more weighty volumes" (Bond 1951).


Growing individualism in the Western world helped shape the private detective as a hero of the modern age. He is often shabby in appearance, slow in his habits, but smart in dealing with the adversaries. He is brainy and is able to perceive some pattern where others would not see any. There is some similarity between him and the cowboy of the movies. He is very human and is part of the world that we live in. His eccentricities and peculiar habits mark him as distinct from others.

To begin with, we are introduced to a perfect and anonymous crime. Then someone is accused of committing the crime. There are umpteen possibilities and each possibility is real, not to be dismissed lightly. Often the police is dull-witted and seeks the help of the eccentric. As unexpected developments take place, the detective puts all these in proper perspective, and finally solves the mystery of the crime. Well, this is one way of describing the process of detection. There are so many other ways that would add to the charm of detective fiction.


D. J. Delffs tells the story in a very interesting manner that suits the sensibilities of the modern day Christian (language use, for example), and he tries to look at the problem of the Amish settlement in a sympathetic manner. The sympathy he is able to generate in favor of the Amish and Father Grif's own faith and the deft handling of the situation takes the novel one step closer to the status of "Christian" detective fiction.

Father Brown's detection and Father Grif's handling of the events are quite different. Father Brown declared,

I try to get inside the murderer. Indeed it's much more than that, don't you see? I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer. And when I am quite sure that I feel exactly like the murderer myself, of course, I know who he is (Bond 1951).

As the present generation of Christian readers wishes to avoid reading and talking about violence and graphic descriptions of violence, in the manner Father Brown described his own method of detection, the author of The Judas Tree indulges himself in suggestion rather than any detailed description of the crime scene, etc. The language is polished, but the narration still retains the suspense.

We have seen only some aspects of the character of Father Grif, and I have no doubt that Delffs will make us privy to the unfolding facets of Father Grif, a widower who is now in the process of falling in love with an amiable woman, in the novels to come.

Will he also do some new and bold experimentation with detective fiction and help transform the genre to be truly Christian? I believe that even with the retention of entertainment, logic, reason, and suspense, detective works may be so created as to revolve around the redemptive ministry of the Holy Spirit.

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Bond, R. T. "Foreword," in The Father Brown Omnibus, by G. K. Chesterton. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1951.

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Delffs, D. J.. The Judas Tree. Bethany House Publishers,
Minneapolis, MN 55438. 1999.

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