Rev Rob Vander Laan (Terry Hager)
Rev Rob Vander Laan

(creator: Terry Hager)

Terry A Hager
Rev Rob Vander Laan had grown up in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago where he'd had a few scrapes with the police and joined a gang that never quite got off the ground. His grandparents had emigrated from the Netherlands.His father was a local pastor in Chicago.
Rob is 34, and had just graduated a year before from seminary which had included a year's internship in a ghetto church. He now works with the Street Ministry in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he is on good terms with members of the local gang. He has long hair and a beard which he plays with when agitated, which seems quite often. He has a wife, Jackie, and a five-year-old son called Andy. He narrates the story.

Terry Hager's first job after leaving seminary was at the Grand Rapids youth ministry, an interdenominational ministry where he worked from 1968 to 1973. This is what inspired his first novel, described below. Beginning as a Christian Reformed Street Minister, he ended up as executive director of an ecuminical counselling service before leaving Grand Rapids in 1997 in order to live out a dream and allow more time for him and his wife to live and travel in their much-prized RV (recreational vehicle), and to do more writing. He has published numerous articles, mostly in travel magazines.

Death on the Night Watch (2010) is set in Grand Rapids in 1969. Reverend Robert Vander Laan regularly gets into hot water with his Dutch American denomination because of his offbeat ministry to hippies and gang kids, with names like Star, Mad Dog, Red Feather and Outlaw, all members of the Lost Souls gang. Rob explains, “Nicknames of downtown kids had seemed silly to me, until I came to understand the pain and alienation hidden under or flaunted by their new handles." And he writes about them with sympathy and understanding.

Then he discovers a gang girl's bloody corpse. With a motley crew of helpers, including his seventy-year-old secretary, the president of the Lost Souls gang, and a sexy cocktail waitress, Robert seeks to stop and solve what turns out to be a series of murders, even though he seems to be risking even the future of his own marriage as he had grows increasingly attracted to glamorous waitress Sam. And he soon finds his own life - and his house too - are in very real danger.

One of the two detectives involved starts by being positively belligerent: "Johnson moved so close to me his belly brushed against my stomach. 'If you're holding out on me,' he said, 'I'll bust your ass so fast it'll make that white collar of yours spin.'
'I'd appreciate it if you didn't stand so close, Detective."
Johnson grabbed my clerical shirt and pulled me to within inches of his nose. “I will stand where ever the hell I please, Vander Laan. And before the year is over I'll close this place down so these pansy-assed kiddies won't have a clergyman to hide behind." He let go of my shirt and stepped back.
I looked him in the eye and said, 'God bless you, Johnson'.
He stared back, red-faced. “Detective Johnson to you.'
'And it's Reverend Vander Laan to you.' "
All this is vividly described (so vividly that you wonder if it is based on a real conversation that the author had had - or would like to have had) but what is not so clear is why soon afterwards he is so impressed by Rob that that he is telling him, "You might as well call me Sid." The explanation we are given is that Rob reminded him of his own dead policeman son (murdered by a gang member) - but this is not very convincing.

The other policeman speaks in a particularly stilted style of his own: “A modicum of empathy might be apropos," he says, and the only reason given for his stilted talk is that "his father teaches at U of M English literature." It does not make him a very likely character either.

Rob's mother seems altogether more realistic: " A minister has to project the right image," she tells him. "With that beard and long hair, you look like one of those hippies or gang kids yourself. Is that what you want?" And she usually phones him up to tick him off about his dangerous exploits almost as soon as they happen, as the Dutch grapevine ("What it lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in speed") works so fast. Once again the writer seems to be using some first-hand experience!

The author's prose style can be rather plodding and from time to time interest flags, but Rob himself is quite a lively character, driving around, as he does in a green sedan on which one of the gang had painted “a cross, a peace sign, a lighthouse, flowers and the words Night Watch. I'd asked the artist the significance of 'Night Watch'.
“It's what you do, he said. “You watch over us night people."

Rob had received an invitation to serve as the pastor of another church but “the problem was I'd come to care about my congregation a lot more than I'd ever anticipated". And he does succeed in influencing gang members for the good, as when gang president Outlaw tells him, “I just want to change, clean up my act .... Even though it scares the shit out of me, it feels like I'm on the right track."
“Trust that feeling," I said, "thinking how much I loved my job at times like this."

As his old assistant and friend Lydia tells him, "Perhaps helping to solve the murders of your congregation is your calling right now. Maybe you are doing ministry when you play detective." Maybe!

The author has his own blog. There is also an article about him and the book on the Christian Reformed Church site.

The book is only available either printed to order or on Kindle.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Death on the Night Watch cover
The cover is quite striking,but the text might have benefited from some professional editing.
Return to