Heaven plus all that goes before

"Heaven plus all that goes before" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Books Issue," July 14, 2012

The first novel in the detective series, Deadline (Multnomah, 1994), has as its protagonist Oregon newspaper columnist Jake Woods, whose two close friends-one a hard-core atheist, the other a Christian-die in a car accident that turns out not to be an accident. As Jake learns the truth, he also confronts his own atheistic selfishness and the way it has led him to divorce his wife, alienate his daughter, and avoid visiting his mother in a nearby assisted living home. Alcorn provides a terrific depiction of an anti-Christian journalist proceeding from presuppositions that leave him thinking he's being fair to "both sides" while unconsciously twisting what Christian interviewees are telling him.

Meanwhile, Jake's dead Christian friend, Finney, is learning the joys of a heaven "so potent and bright and overwhelming he felt it would have ripped his earthly body to shreds." Finney is surprised to find that heaven is a place of review and reflection, but an angel instructs him that learning the truth is essential because "you come from a world where truth is obscured, shrouded, reinterpreted," and lies "are mistaken for truth because the majority believes them, as if the universe were a democracy and truth subject to a vote."

Jake finds himself drawn to Ollie Chandler, a hard-boiled detective who's painstakingly narrowing down the murder suspect list, and Clarence Abernathy, a black sports columnist with little patience for affirmative action and other liberal verities. Jake begins to ask questions about what he had taken for granted: "If we write a piece that knocks religious fundamentalists, we pride ourselves we've done tough, honest reporting. ... But if we do a piece that offends gay groups or feminists or environmentalists or whoever, then we do penance, have special editorial meetings, establish sensitivity groups, promise to hire more reporters of that color or persuasion or orientation."

All this is couched within a detective story with well-plotted twists and turns. Alcorn occasionally stops the action for an excursion into journalistic production that sometimes has a character giving a lecture, but he gets both the details and the inflections right, and gets back to the plot much more quickly than Herman Melville did in Moby Dick. Alcorn skillfully draws his main characters and makes believable Jake's lurching acceptance of God's grace.

The same is true in Alcorn's next novel, Dominion, which makes Clarence the protagonist and brings to the fore racial tensions and gang warfare. Clarence has a Christian heritage but rebels against it and is quick to perceive racial slights: He desires advancement based on hard work rather than liberal condescension. The solid plot mixes detective aspects-Clarence's sister is the victim of a mysterious drive-by shooting, which turns out to be connected to a cover-up of adultery-with a lot of teaching about gangs and a lot of learning by Clarence about Christianity.

The third in Alcorn's series, Deception, published in 2007, has hard-boiled detective Ollie as a central figure who hurling out lines like "Messin' with me's like wearin' cheese underwear down rat alley." Ollie verbally spars with a college provost: "He tested me by using bigger words and more abstract concepts . ... I tested him by dropping the names Sam Spade and Jack Bauer. Before long we each knew the other was a moron." Ollie does not lie but makes suspects think he knows more than he knows: "What if I told you that we found the gun with your fingerprints on it?"

But the harder question is whether Ollie can recover from the death of his wife and come to some understanding of why a world under God's authority endures so much evil. Deception, like the other two D-named novels, entertainingly deals with the life-and-death questions but wraps them around Ollie's solving of a purpose-driven murder. ("There's always a purpose, always a motive.") Characters see their purpose change once they move away from thinking that every day in moving toward death they are coming closer to losing their treasure. Those who understand that their treasure is in heaven day by day move closer to gaining it.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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