by Phil Jason
“Innocent Blood” by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 264 pages. Hardcover, $26.99.
Michael Lister’s seventh John Jordan Mystery takes an unusual step. Instead of moving readers forward on the path of John’s life, it takes them back to his very first case.
In fact, this tale takes readers back in time twice.
First, to 1980 when the Jordan family went on a vacation to Atlanta. John, 12 at the time, was fated to encounter the man who was later convicted of two murders (though not the murders or abduction of the many black boys who were thought to be his victims).
John had seen and interacted with Wayne Williams, but he didn’t make the connection until many months later, when the print and television news was filled with the story of Mr. Williams’ arrest. The man he met was hawking opportunities for gullible youngsters to become professional entertainers. Of course, this was not at all the goal of the menacing Mr. Williams.
The Atlanta Child Murders continued to occupy Atlanta police, and they continued to occupy space in young John’s imagination.
Six years later, soon after graduation from high school, John Jordan returns to Atlanta. Having been torn between pursuing a career in law enforcement or one in the ministry, he opted to enroll in a new ministerial program at the Earl Paulk Institute. This decision was a difficult one that severed John’s relationship with his police chief father, who thought John was making a foolish mistake.
While working for the institute and its parent church, John manages to attach himself to policemen who had worked on the Atlanta Child Murders, including the man in charge of the investigation. John’s obsessive interest and his obvious analytical skills lead them to allow him a role in the continuing investigation, which has been reignited by similar crimes. This is exactly what John has hoped for. There are just too many unclosed cases with similar details, and yet it seems unlikely that Mr. Williams could have been responsible for all of them.
The community John has entered includes Safe Haven, a daycare and aftercare center run by Ida Williams (no relation to Wayne) near the church. Ida’s young son, LaMarcus, was murdered, but he was never put on the list headed Atlanta Child Murders — even though his death occurred during that time period. Like John at that time, LaMarcus was 12 years old.
John now meets the beautiful Jordan Williams, Ida’s daughter, who becomes the new love of his life, but she is stuck in a bad marriage. Regularly beaten by her husband, a local policeman, she has her eyes on John, and she appreciates his tentative attentions.
After establishing the key players, the author focuses on John’s exhausting attempt to balance his college studies, his work commitments that are in lieu of tuition and his unswerving pursuit of the unsolved murders. Still only a kid himself, John impresses people with his maturity, compassion and insight. He seems to know what questions need to be pursued. John is allowed to review evidence that has never added up to anything; remarkably, he often sees connections and possibilities that haven’t been noticed by the professionals.
Mr. Lister hooks the reader with his compelling portrait of community life, his detailed handling of how John sharpens his investigatory skills, a series of menacing events revealing that his efforts are putting him and others in danger, John’s battle with alcoholism and his growing romance with Jordan (who playfully announces that if they marry, she will not be called Jordan Jordan).
John also becomes a kind of big brother to some of the kids at Safe Haven, and the author makes these relationships sweetly appealing. Hey, just because a man wants to hang around with young boys doesn’t make him a pervert or murder suspect.
“Innocent Blood” is a beautifully constructed story, cleanly and often poetically written. The carefully nuanced development of John’s moral sensibility and intellectual fortitude is highly appealing.
Graced by an introduction from Michael Connelly that offers persuasive praise (and even includes a conversation between John and Mr. Connelly’s classic detective character Harry Bosch), this preamble to the John Jordan Mystery series is good news for mystery fans who appreciate fine writing and creative risk taking. Michael Lister doesn’t play it safe. ■ — Phil Jason