Building a mystery, Santa Fe-style
Novelist David Carlson
For someone in my field, New Mexico is a bit like a candy store,” said David Carlson, a professor of religious studies at Franklin College in Indiana. “There are so many layers of spirituality — from the Anasazi to the Pueblo communities, Hispanic Catholicism, the monasteries in Santa Fe, and the Sufi community near Silver City. Some people do pub crawls; I do that with old churches and old worship spaces.”
Carlson’s research area is religion and violence. He is the author of Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World (Thomas Nelson, 2011) and Enter by the Narrow Gate, a literary mystery published in November 2016 by Coffeetown Press that is the first in the Christopher Worthy and Father Fortis mystery series. He completed the manuscript for Enter by the Narrow Gate nearly 20 years ago, wrote a second book in 2004, and then wrote a third in 2014 after spending a decade or so focusing on nonfiction work and speaking engagements. When his agent called to tell him that all three novels had been picked up by Coffeetown, a small publisher in Seattle, he realized it had been so long since he wrote them that he couldn’t remember all of the titles. Reading them again became part of the editing process, which included updating the technology used in the detective work. He enjoyed spending time again with his main characters — a police detective from Detroit and a Greek Orthodox monk. “So I started writing a fourth installment in December of 2015, and it sort of flowed out of me.”
In Gate, Father Nick Fortis is on sabbatical at a Catholic monastery in Truchas, New Mexico, researching Roman Catholic chants. A few days after his arrival, a nun, also a visitor at St. Mary of the Snows, is murdered in an isolated retreat house. Father Fortis’ old friend, Lt. Worthy, comes to quietly assist with the internal investigation while he is in Santa Fe on a missing-persons case: a wealthy, troubled college girl from Detroit who disappeared on a spring-break trip to New Mexico.
“Some would say it’s a buddy series, but Worthy and Father Fortis are very contrasting persons,” Carlson said. “A Sumo-sized monk who talks a lot and a detective who grew up in a parsonage, but due to some horrible things that have happened in his job and his family, he has lost his faith. I’ve not made that a big piece of the mystery, but I try to treat his loss of faith as an issue as complex as having faith.”
Gate is rich with questions of religion and faith, the difference between the two, what happens when religion turns to fanaticism, and how easy it is to misinterpret someone else’s spiritual motivations. The mysteries eventually converge in a boy from Acoma Pueblo named Victor and hinge on the Penitentes, the lay Roman Catholic brotherhood known for graphically reenacting Christ’s crucifixion during Holy Week. Worthy is paired with Lt. Sera Lacey of the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department on the missing-persons case, and there is quite a bit of tension between them over the nature of the Penitentes’ traditions. Whereas Worthy assumes the members of the brotherhood have a sick fascination with pain and torture — an attitude that leads him to alienate locals whenever he brings it up — Lacey has a deeper understanding