Don Thompson
(creator: Dean Feldmeyer)

Dean Feldmeyer
Dan Thompson was given some eminently practical advice by his mother on the day he was ordained as a Methodist minister: "Daniel, you have a lot of potential. You will go far in the ministry. If you fuck around, don't do it in your own parish." By the time he was 38, he had become senior pastor of the largest and most prestigious Methodist church in the state. Unfortunately, though, he "threw all of that away for a rather torrid affair with a woman who ... ordered her underwear from erotic catalog houses, and taught the third-grade Sunday School class in my church". He was made to resign. "What was it?" Mom asked him, "Money, pussy or booze?" She always held that "these three are the demons especially designed and commissioned in hell to lead the clergy astray. When I told her it was all three, she was neither shocked nor surprised." You can understand why his wife takes off with their two children.

However, after two years spent teaching in a private school ("it was the kind of job that put bread on your table and despair in your heart"), his application for readmission to the ministry is accepted, and he is sent off to the tiny sleepy Kentucky town of Baird. "Baird is in Appalachia. Hillbilly country," his mother warns him. "Keep your nose clean and your pants up" But he is hardly a conventional clergyman. "I'm really a pretty likeable person," he tells his new friend, May June, "once you get to know me". "You're handsome as the devil himself,"she tells him. He can preach well too: "I was always good from the pulpit. It was in the office and the bedroom that I screwed things up - if you'll excuse the pun." He is a thoroughly outrageous character - but never boring.

Dan Thompson is the creation of Dean Feldmeyer (1951- ), himself an ordained Methodist minister, who lives in Ohio. He spends most of his summers in the Appalachian regions of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, working with home-building and repair projects, and visiting his grandmother who used to work at a mountain orphanage. His Dan Thompson books are set in this Appalachian hill country, and he writes about it with real affection and understanding.

He says, "I have attempted to blend the dark edge of the hard-boiled detective novel with the humor of the clerical mystery." But he has also written more serious works on parenting and youth ministry. Dean, by the way, is his first name - not an ecclesiastical title! He explains in a message to a newsgroup that his publisher, Pocket Books, dropped him after the first two books in the Dan Thompson series "on the same day that I learned that I had been nominated for the Edgar award" for Viper Quarry. He tells the stories in the first person throughout, so there's every chance to enjoy (or be upset) by Dan's persistent off-beat sense of humor.

Viper Quarry (1994)
Viper Quarry is a lively, tough and humorous story. As Thompson explains, "Baird is to towns what a sandwich is to Thanksgiving dinner ... but it looked pretty good to me. I got a knowing welcome from Ray Hall (sheriff's constable, town postmaster and owner of the Baird Diner and Store) and his wife, May June, who serves up crackerjack advice with her crispy fried chicken." But, before he has time to preach his first sermon, a sweet old couple die in an arson attack. Then their foster child, a wild promiscuous teenager, goes missing. "Some people are just unlucky and that's all there is to it," says Dan. "Shit happens, as the bumper sticker used to say. And sometimes there's nothing you or God can do about it". This is one of the few mentions that God gets in the book - but religious questions keep bobbing up: "How is it," Dan asks, "that Christianity can be such a kind and gentle religion and such a mean and hateful one at the same time? Hospitals and nursing homes, crusades and witch burnings - they all come in the same package".

He meets Naomi Taylor "a young businesswoman as smart as she is lovely" with whom he happily makes love in a hot tub: "The beautiful face, the marvelous breasts, not overly large but firm, the nipples pointing slightly up. Tight stomach, slight flare of her hips, and well muscled but supple legs. Jesus, she was a vision .... I felt my groin tighten and harden, come to attention, and I figured that watching time was over. Somehow she seemed to read my mind and came to me ...."

You wouldn't always guess that this book was written by a clergyman - the author seems to takes Dan's religious beliefs for granted, and feels no need to explore them further. Yet Dan tells Naomi, "I do believe it, you know". "I know you do. God, Jesus Christ, grace, love , forgiveness, mercy, justice. You believe! And everyone in the church can see it, and it's like it's the first time any of them have ever heard of it, even though they've been going to church all their lives". And that, she says, is why all the women in the church are in love with him.

There's plenty of dramatic action in which Dan gets involved, as when his car is almost bumped off the mountain road by a pick-up truck, but no real detection is required from him. But he helps Constable Ray Hall deal with such characters as demented preacher Zester Bertke who is "a Fundamentalist. Uneducated. Emotional. He takes every single word in the Bible and says that it is the absolute truth and should be followed word for word." "Like this business of handling snakes and drinking poison?" asks Ray. "Exactly. And that's the worst part. The passage that snake handlers quote as their authority isn't really even in the Bible. At least most scholars don't include it. It's from an obscure ending to the Book of Mark that most people think was added later, long after Mark was dead and gone." It is interesting to compare the author's view of this sort of preaching, with his own experiences of hearing a fiery but crooked tent preacher when he himself was only 13, as recounted on this web-page. It was this experience. he says, that made him want to be a pastor but not an evangelist.

Dan may not do any real detecting, but he's good at taking funerals of the victims. As he'd been told years before when taking his first funeral: "Keep it short. Keep it positive. Let the Word do the talkin'. Read the old familiar stuff; this ain't the time to teach progressive theology. Preach to their hearts, not their heads. Don't say anything that ain't true or that you can't prove. Don't make promises that you can't keep. You ain't a preacher right now, Dan. You're a pastor. Them folks need hugs more'n they need words. So keep your words short and your hugs long". This is surely Rev Feldmeyer speaking directly from his own experience. One wonders how much of the rest of the book might be his own wishful thinking. Or perhaps it's pure entertainment. Well, perhaps not so pure. Anyway, for those not easily shocked, and who like tough detective stories, it's to be recommended.

Pitchfork Hollow (1995)
Pitchfork Hollow is a rough, tough story about largely unpleasant hillbilly characters, including Big John Wisdom whose body is found floating on the sewage under a crapper. Dan has been pastor of Baird Methodist church for a couple of months now, but the work isn't very demanding so he has plenty of time to spend helping out his good friend constable/postmaster Ray Hall and his wife May June, who runs the diner where he breakfasts.

Then there's the beautiful Naomi Taylor, 16 years younger than him, with whom he finds he is "madly, passionately, frightfully, achingly, hormonally in love", but who won't marry him while her very ill father is still alive and needing her. "For my part I was convinced that Hebrew Taylor would one day give us all a break and die, Naomi and I would get married, and we would serttle into a happy, domestic routine of nonstop sexual congress". But until then they must try not to attract too much attention to themselves. Dan reflects that it's a pity that the only sin his parishioners are happy to allow their clergy is gluttony. They always insist on pressing food on them with the result that "nine out of ten Methodist ministers I have known in my life are fat. Is it any wonder?"

There's lot of violence (and sex too) in the story as Ray isn't one who holds back from a fight, and, when it comes to drug dealers, he positively seems to enjoy beating them up. Dan ends up with a broken nose too. I didn't find all this violence at all pleasant or even always all that interesting to read about, and wouldn't rate this one of the better books. You can see why the publisher didn't want to on with the series.

Cut-Through Valley (2000)
Cut-Through Valley is the best book in the series. It manages to combine a really gripping, if very violent, story with real religious issues. It begins with Dan Thompson (who has been at Baird for eight months now) being asked to take the funeral of Erasmus Wishbone Haines. He doesn't want to refuse, but isn't at all sure what he can say about the deceased who is, in fact, a dog, "the most famous, prize winningest, rabbit huntingest beagle in the entire state of Kentucky". But his owner gets murdered before his dog can be buried, and Dan and Roy Hall set about tracking down the murderer(s). And it's not only people who die - but more dogs too. Isn't it odd how their deaths can hurt us most of all? Or is it all a cunning way of involving us emotionally?

The first murder is all the more memorable for Dan because it happened on the day after Easter, "the highest, holiest day of the Christian calendar ...Easter reminds us that life is triumphant. It's a pretty big deal." And it's a time when Dan's own two children had been to visit him, leaving him feeling "self-pity, loneliness and guilt ... Hadn't I thrown them away with my marriage and my career and everything else that was dear to me when I decided to take that roll in the hay with a Sunday school teacher three years before?"

Dan's love for his current girlfriend Naomi stays constant, despite temptations elsewhere: "She was the love of my life. my infatuation, my obsession ... The only saving grace to my pitiful state was that Naomi happened to be in love with me ... To be loved unconditionally is a thing rare and wonderful indeed. It is, I think, the closest we can actually come to the divine in our mortal lives".

Dan does all the church duties that are required of him but mostly, he discovers, "The people of my vast parish wanted to be left alone. They'd call me when they needed me". But he usually accompanied Constable Ray Hall "to inform loved ones when someone died on the roads or in the mines. I went with him to the hospital when someone shot a husband or wife or lover. I went with him when he had to arrest someone he didn't want to arrest. I was the unofficial chaplain to the township police force of one".

Ray Hall has his own clear idea of justice: "Mainly, he keeps the hard drugs out (a passion with him), makes sure the moonshine is safe, and keeps the marijuana crops small enough for personal consumption of the grower only ... He didn't make many arrests, usually preferring to mete out justice with a word to the wise and a thump on the head of the foolish". Or sometimes, much more than a thump. In fact, he's a very tough and resourceful fighter. Even so, he and Dan find themselves in considerable danger, and the excitement mounts throughout.

Death is treated realistically: "Our pets die. Our movie idols and sports heroes die. Our grandparents die. Eventually our parents and friends die. We aren't ready for it, exactly, but we are prepared. It is one of God's severe mercies that the litttle losses we suffer throughout our lives prepare us for the bigger ones yet to come. By the time the big losses arrive we have developed ways of handling them, of grieving. And each person's way of grieving is uniquely his or her own." Maybe it's no coincidence that this book is dedicated to the memory of the author's father.

Dan reflects, "I'm a city boy, out of my element in the Apallachians. I usually like quietude for about fifteen minutes, and then I find it spooky ... but there was something pleasant and peaceful about the quiet in Cut-Through Valley", and he goes on to decribe the sound of the breeze, birds and squirrel ("just enough noise to remind you that life goes on"). He learns to like the Appalachian way of doing things too: "You never just come out and say what's in your mind with Kentucky hill people. You circle slowly round the subject for a while ... The point of this discursive dillydallying is to get the other guy to bring up the topic you want to talk about." Then, of course, you have to learn to master all the different ways of shrugging expressively.

It's all made to sound very real. "Like the lilies of the field and the grass of the pasture, we spring up, we live, and we are gone, all in a blink of the cosmic eye. Life, no matter how brief, is a gift, and the value of the gift is not diminished by its brevity.The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord".

Recommended for story, characterisation and religious content.

Crimson Creek (2001)
Crimson Creek
is the name of an odd religious cult (The Children of the Lamb of God), the founder of which, one Jonah Haycatcher, gets murdered. Don Thompson, who has been at Baird a year now, become a sort of unofficial police chaplain, and helps his good friend Constable Ray Hall identify the murderer. It makes a strong action-packed story, involving drugs and plenty of humor, exciting action and surprises.

Dan Thompson has to devote time to preparing sermons (and there is a detailed description of how he does it that sounds as if it is based on the author's own experience), but there is no mention of prayer or personal worship. All we discover about his religious life is his dislike of "phony, jackass, fundamentalist Christian ministers who make empty promises to desperate people". But he's still very much in love with Naomi: "Naomi is a beautiful woman, and to this day, I can't believe that she's stuck on me, of all people. At twenty-four years old, she's sixteen years younger than I." But God doesn't get much of a mention, except in such passages as: "The Carmacks are identical twins, and there's the pity - that God would create two such homely people at the same time and in the same family". Perhaps the author, himself a Methodist minister, felt no need to harp on abour religious belief, bur preferred to show it in action - or perhaps he wanted to talk about something else for a change.

Much as Thompson likes the hill people of Appalachia, he is realistic about them, accepting that something like a third of the marijuana sold in the United States comes from Appalachia : "That meant that some of the people in my church were either growing the stuff or were tolerating its being grown on their property. Poverty does that to people. Makes them desperate and stupid and sometimes reckless." But he doesn't kid himself about why they come to church: "The reality was that they came to see their neighbours, hear the news of what was going on on the mountain, trade gossip, make deals, swap, trade, tell jokes, and keep at bay the boredom and loneliness of mountain living." It all makes a good story.

There is little about the author on the web.

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Viper Quarry cover
The cover is nothing if not colorful.
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