Thursday, February 03, 2005


The Lord maketh a fine murder mystery

Lost in the sound and fury of the religious right’s rise to social and political prominence is the quiet, traditional message of The New Dispensation.

But that gospel of salvation and unconditional love preached by the man after whom they named Christianity is explored with conviction by Joseph H. Hilley in “Sober Justice” ((Riveroak).

Hilley, a lawyer from the low country of Alabama, does the safe thing in picking a subject about which he’s familiar. His lead character, Mike Connolly, is a lawyer who has fallen far from his religion.

When the story opens, Connolly is thinking about his next drink. He shacks up with a stripper, has emergency rations of gin stored in his every hidey- hole, and governs his life by how close he will be at any given moment to the next drink.

He’s chosen by a judge to take on a controversial case, one of those “red balls” that every lawyer worth his or her briefcase ducks with grace and desperation. Head honchos in the area are implicated in a strange murder, and the millstones of justice are swiftly rolling over a sap who happens to be nabbed near the scene.

The suspect, a poor black man, hardly hears the cavalry when Connolly, flush with a bad case of the shakes, shambles into the attorney-client room of the local jail to confer.

But again, remember the message of the New Testament. It’s delivered in ways as clear and self-evident as the tale of the Prodigal Son, and as subtly as Jesus’ description of the lilies in the field.

Connolly may be beyond salvation in the eyes of his fellow lawyers. He may be "‘buked and scorned" by his own daughter and despised by his ex-wife. But, as a child of this world, he is still a candidate for redemption.

In this age in which miracles are brought courtesy of Steven Spielberg or the next great computer simulation, Hilley’s not afraid to bring some of that wonder to his novel.

Connolly’s life takes a turn for the better when he winds up in a church. In short order, he has a revelation reminiscent of that experienced by Antipater in Robert Graves’ “King Jesus.”

Connolly gets a chance to experience the wonder of the Lord he once called father, and the brief moment leads him to forsake the juniper juice.

And temperance comes not a moment too soon. A cover-up is underway, and Robinson gets swept up in the shenanigans. He’s abducted from jail and shipped to a mental institution, where he’s given enough PCP to make him think he’s at a disco in Hell.

Connolly, blessed with new energy and determination, manages to not only track down Robinson, but also follow the snaky plot through to its conclusion.

Here’s where the wings come on: Hilley actually has Connolly undergo two additional miracles ?? not the "I just-hit the-lottery" sort of occurrences, but rather physics-defying stuff. Water doesn’t turn into wine, (remember we have a recovering alcoholic here), but the laws of time and space are bent by the real boss.

Here’s how Connolly’s spirit-guide, a practical clergyman named Father Scott, explains the miracles that saved Connolly’s life.

“’Look,’ Father Scott said. “Like I told you before, I don’t have all the answers. I can’t tell you why. I can only tell you who. You have encountered the One who made something from absolutely nothing. Time doesn’t set boundaries for Him. He exists beyond time.’”

That may sound complex, but any true religionist will recognize Father Scott’s description of faith and God’s power. Among such people, to even question such miracles is akin to asking if one is really breathing. The answer is in every breath one takes.

To extrapolate, Hilley’s book reaches across the unfortunate chasm that separates non-religionists from those who see the Word as the Alpha and the Omega. His book is full of what one would expect in a murder-mystery. There are lots of tussles, some pretty girls, and even a sort of car chase. But through it all is a spirit not often extant in the world of Mike Hammer and the Continental Op, the presence of God.

More information on “Sober Justice” and books in a similar vein can be obtained at

Hilley’s effective blending of the spiritual and the grubbily mundane may, like honey, draw more to the word than a stiff dose of old-time religion. That would be a well-deserved benefit of Hilley’s gripping, well-turned tale.

James M. Abraham is an independent book reviewer. He can be reached at

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