Perhaps it is unfair to call this book a mystery, as it is an ambitious work with carefully drawn characters and a careful explanation of the culture and structure of a modern American megachurch. But MacDonald made his career as a mystery writer, and this book, like so much of his oeuvre, has a murder at the center of its plot. Whatever label you give you the book, it is a pleasurable read and an interesting portrait of an important aspect of modern American society.
Though certainly not the most gripping of this very talented popular novelist's works, it is nevertheless a very engaging book. For several days I lived inside this novel, waiting for opportunities to return to its pages, and sinking happily back into the story whenever the opportunity presented itself.
MacDonald started out with a good deal of talent as a mystery writer, but there was something in his nature that enabled him to keep getting better and better as the years wore on. He grew particularly adept at creating memorable characters, and getting deep inside their heads, and inside the mundane, but somehow profoundly engaging, details of their lives.
The cast of characters in this tale will be familiar to any reader of MacDonald's books. We have people from all strata of society, and from many different professions. MacDonald's singular gift was to get inside the soul of America's middle and upper middle class, and to paint it in vivid colors in a style that instantly rings true. When MacDonald describes the owners of a failing motel that play a part in this story, you feel as if you were suddenly allowed into the back rooms of that crummy $50 a night cinder block wonder that you got stuck in when your regular reservations fell through. This is the real America, painted in deeply sympathetic and engaging colors.
MacDonald also excels at creating portraits of our institutions. Buried in this work of fiction is a perfectly readable non-fiction account of American megachurches. These passages no doubt account for some of the other reviewer's comments that the book rambles, or contains overly long descriptions. These comments are fair, only I find MacDonald's descriptive passages fascinating. In this book he does a particularly good job of describing the role played by computers in the church's financial life. I find it amazing that a person of his generation came to understand computers so well at a time when most of the rest of the country was only beginning to understand that they even existed. MacDonald did a great job of researching this book, and takes us into the back rooms of a large, very wealthy organization, and shows exactly how it is put together. MacDonald's megachurch is part spiritual institution, and part big business, and he shows exactly how this unholy wedding of disparate institutions was forged out of the raw stuff of American life.
This was one of MacDonald's last books, if not his very last. I've said that his skill as a writer increased over the years. It is also true that he developed a melancholy cast to his writing as he grew older. His last books could even be said to have an elegiac tone, as if MacDonald was always in mourning for an America that was crushed by the forces of greed and by the mindless power of big business. MacDonald is too good a novelist, and too careful a thinker, to paint the portrait of our megachurches in over simplified shades of black and white. Nevertheless, part of this book's appeal is the unmasking of a powerful force in American society that has done our country so much damage over the last thirty or so years. In MacDonald's books it is usually a real estate tycoon or corrupt politician who plays the role of villain, but in this text we get a sympathetic but devastating portrait of the role megachurches have played in undermining what is best in the American character, and best in the long, rich history of spiritual thought that was once one of our country's greatest strengths. MacDonald understands the important role of religion in American life, and he is not without sympathy and respect for the comfort that megachurches bring to many lives. Nevertheless, he clearly shows how megachurches are yet another symptom of the corruption that has eaten at the heart of America and robbed it of so much of its strength and integrity.