Father Hardy

(creator: Jonathan Thomas Stratman)

Jonathan Thomas Stratman
Father Hardy had served in the US army during the Second World War, and had subsequently gone on to join St Luke's Seminary in Sewanee in Tennessee. At the start of Indecent Exposure (reviewed below) he had served for some five months as a newly ordained Episcopal priest at Chandelar, a tiny town in Alaska with a population of some 300 with the nearest big town 80 miles away. An ex boxer, he is "pretty tough" - and he needs to be. His wife had died of polio just a year ago, just months before his ordination. He is, the author says, loosely based on a real Alaskan priest, the author's own father.

Jonathan Thomas Stratman (1948 - ) grew up in Alaska, but subsequently moved on to Pacific Northwest. He was awarded a BA in Education and English at Western Washington University. He began self-publishing a whole series of novels, including the Father Hardy Alaskan Mysteries, when he was in his sixties. He is also a thirty-year audio and video producer, with projects including historical documentaries and a syndicated NPR radio series.

Indecent Exposure (2011)
Indecent Exposure is set in Chandelar in Alaska in 1955. It starts with Father Hardy, a newly ordained Episcopal priest, being taken into the freezing wilderness to collect the frozen body of a small time hoodlum from Chandelar. As he tries to figure out who had killed him, he finds plenty of evidence that connects the corpse and his shady business dealings with all sorts of unpleasant characters, most of whom seem to have had a reason to kill him. However, being able to handle himself in a fist fight and knowing how to shoot a gun (even if "there hadn't been any self-defense pistol classes at seminary"), and ready to behave "very like a thief" if necessary, Father Hardy is well able to look after himself. But will he fall in love with prostitute Evie, who has breast cancer and who had asked him for help? He "thought again of her breasts. They seemed like beautiful breasts, and the first I'd seen in a long, lonely time. It was grossly unfair that one of them was killing her." Or could she be the murderer?

The great strength of this book lies in its portrayal of the violent, isolated Alaskan background with its mean "one-and-two room log cabins and tar-paper shacks." Father Hardy himself makes an interesting if unlikely priest. He certainly has his doubts, as when he declares, "I've never believed in the classic version of Hell. I've always thought that the place people call Hell is inside us." He thinks, "There is only one God. Not an Episcopal God or Methodist or Catholic or Buddhist. I think all that is as trivial to God as the shirts we wear." But then he does not sound too sure of himself when he explains to a man who has "sold his daughter" that "you need to confess your sin to God, then as God's agent I will absolve you in His name and assign your penance. Penance is what you have to do to make up for your sin. It's a kind of trade. You're not really off the hook until you complete your penance." And he comments, "At least (that's) how I've been taught that it works."

He dreams that his dead wife Mary comes to him in the night, telling him, "You're being faithful to a dead woman. It's no way to live," and, being nothing if not practical, suggests that he finds out why the murder victim had ventured so far from town. Later on she advises him, "Kiss her" - but by then he was already already doing this.

Looking back, it seemed to Hardy that "Most of what I've been doing lately was breaking and entering, concealing evidence of crimes - including murder - plus I'd been barroom brawling, and shooting people. None of those things were normally found in the job description of young mission priests." So he was understandably worried that his record would hardly impress his visiting bishop, especially as he had also been "consorting with a really decent woman who was known locally as a prostitute, and a really naked woman, known locally as a schoolteacher - who wanted to heal me with sex." But it seems that the bishop was not even aware of any of this.

Despite the authentic background, the story increasingly lacked credibility once the shooting started, and Hardy began unravelling "an international spy ring", leading up to a melodramatic climax when "the icy chip of the gun barrel woke me," and he was told he was about to be killed, together with Evie. Taken out to die, "It never occurred to me to pray. I began to wonder if I'd entered the wrong profession." It seems an odd time to start joking. However, he does join Evie in reciting the Lord's Prayer before the inevitable rescue attempt. It will be interesting to see what happens in the later books in the series. Hopefully the plots will be as convincing as the setting.

Down to the River to Prey (2021)
Down to the River to Prey is, as the author has reminded me, the sixth in the Father Hardy Alaskan Mystery series. It describes how Father Hardy and his newly married wife Evie set off on a honeymoon trip along the Yukon on a boat supplied by his bishop who mentioned in passing that Hardy should check out "that incident" at the idyllic little village of Toklat Crossing. The incident turns out to be a murder that involved tying the victim to a fish wheel used for trapping salmon. It seems that there may be a possible connection with a dam building project or the activities of local bootleggers who operate in this "dry" village where, in theory, no alcohol is allowed.

The story gets off to a good start, with the honeymoon couple soon being helped by gay sharpshooter Andy, who is Evie's cousin and Hardy's long-time friend. The pace slackens a bit towards the end, but Hardy (who is called Hardy even by his wife) still does not make a very convincing clergyman as there is never a mention of God and the only time he prays is when he he thinks he is about to be murdered. When depressed, he wonders, "Is the way I feel an issue of my own lack of faith?" Perhaps he had "seen and experienced too much bad stuff" and this is why he is "wondering about the point of it all." But he seems to enjoy a good fight, always being ready to use his right hook or administer the last rites as required. And, as ever, the Alaskan backgrounds of the 1950s are very well drawn.

I wish, though, that the author had not used repeated pictures of a handgun to break up the narrative, as shown below:

I'm afraid I found this a constant distraction.

The author has his own blog.

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Indecent Exposure cover
The cover effectively matches the Alaskan setting.
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