Richard J. Severson
This post is an excerpt from “The Crucified Monk,” a mystery novel that I recently published on the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing platform. It’s a story about a Trappist monastery in the backwoods of Oregon that is being forced to close its doors because nobody wants to be a monk anymore. One of the monks is found murdered on a hilltop shrine behind the monastery. Never having set foot in a Catholic monastery before this case lands in his lap, Detective Couch must unravel more than one mystery as he doggedly pursues a brilliant yet deranged ritual killer who may have killed before. Couch is the homicide detective for the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office. Like many Oregonians, he is what is referred to as a “none” in religious background surveys. That is how he was raised, with no religious training of any kind.
Ritual killers are motivated by personal beliefs that are difficult to fathom. That’s what makes them so hard to catch. The conventional methods of detection are often ineffective because the facts don’t make sense until the unique perspective of the killer is understood. Following the evidence trail and refraining from speculation gets you exactly nowhere.
A monk is crucified like Jesus? It is so obviously a religious ritual killing that it might actually be… too good to be true. What if the killer faked the ritual, knowing that it would be impossible for the cops not to bite, thereby overlooking the real motive? Worried that he might be in over his head, Couch consults a forensic psychologist to get a second opinion.
In this excerpt, Couch pays a second visit to the forensic psychologist (Dr. Briggs) as he struggles to find his footing in the investigation. He is coming back from a visit to the Warm Springs Indian reservation in Central Oregon. The murdered monk, Placid Richards, was the monastery’s archivist. He had been repatriating valuable Native American artifacts that were gifted to the monastery in years gone by.
The Crucified Monk (excerpt):
Before leaving Warm Springs, Couch sent Dr. Briggs a text on the off chance she might have time to see him later that afternoon. He was going to be driving nearby her Lake Oswego office in the thick of rush hour anyway. She responded almost immediately. “See you at the office at 5:00 pm,” her reply said. Couch checked the time. It was almost 3:00 pm. He’d make it even with the heavy traffic.
Briggs invited Couch to sit in the chairs by the window again. She served him coffee and made tea for herself, like before. Then she got her notebook out and started in with the note taking. Couch told her about his day at Warm Springs, and the robbery angle that had emerged in the case. Could robbery and/or anger about Native American artifacts be a legitimate motive for such a bizarre ritual killing? He wondered what she thought about that.
Next Couch discussed the toxicology report and the trace of pentobarbital that had been found in the body. It represented another unexpected clue. He admitted that the persistence of suicide as a recurring theme in the case was puzzling him. Pentobarbital is a drug used for physician-assisted suicide. He had also learned from Father Mark that Placid and Gregory Ronne had been arguing about a suicide manual—Final Exit—before Gregory killed himself. It seemed obvious that some of the monks were exploring the meaning of assisted suicide, and re-evaluating the Church’s longstanding taboo regarding suicide. What possible connection could that have to the murder?
“One of the monks said something that stuck in my mind,” Couch said. “It was the runner, Brother Thomas. He said ‘suicide for the sake of others is not the same thing as murder committed by suicide bombers.’ Something like that, anyway. What did he mean? Jesus was suicidal? I can’t get my head around it.”
He finished by playing her the recording that he’d made when the Abbot gave his impressions of the seven younger monks. She recorded his recording on her smart phone as well, and continued scribbling down her thoughts.
When Couch put his phone away, Briggs took a few more minutes to review and organize her notes. Then she looked up and gazed at Couch for what seemed like an uncomfortably long time to him. It was only a few seconds really, but it brought home just how touchy people are about being looked at. Staring is considered very aggressive behavior in every society, past and present. Couch often exploited that bit of cultural anthropology himself. She probably didn’t mean anything by it, or so he figured.
She said, “First impressions, like last time. OK?”
Couch nodded his consent.
“I think you should contact the ME and talk to him about exhuming the suicide. What was his name again, Ronne? See if there was pentobarbital in his system like there was in Placid’s. If there is some experimentation going on behind the scenes with assisted suicide, or something odd like that, it could help document it. That is point number one.
“Secondly, I want to encourage you to trust your instincts. It sounds like you might be overreacting to every clue that comes along. You are obligated to investigate them, of course, but you are not obligated to surrender yourself to them. Don’t let the noise distract you from doing your job, Couch. That’s the therapist in me speaking now. I don’t usually do pep talks, but I thought you could use one.
“Thirdly, anything is possible, so yes robbery could be a motive in this case. The ritual aspects of the killing aren’t necessarily inconsistent with a robbery subtext. Life is complicated and messy, and so are human emotions and motives. The potential involvement of Native American artifacts is intriguing, at the very least, because of the similarity between the two histories. The monks are desperate to save their way of life, like the Indians of the late nineteenth century. Desperation is a creative force, culturally speaking. Perhaps the barbed wire crucifixion in your case is like the sun dances and ghost shirts that the Plains Indians hoped would save them from cultural annihilation. Who knows, maybe that analogy is a clue to the meaning of the ritual that you are seeking.
“Fourthly, I think you are making a mistake by limiting your interest to the younger monks. Somebody from the older group could be grooming one of them. I don’t really buy the generation gap thing. They might differ in some of their attitudes, but it’s probably not an age-based difference so much as it is an educational one. Granted, some of the older monks probably live in a state of naïve innocence. You could plop them back in the Middle Ages and they wouldn’t know the difference. On the other hand, I’m sure there are others in that age group, such as the Abbot, who wrestle with the contradictions and ironies inherent to their commitment to a way of life that is widely considered an anachronism, or worse.
“Finally, I would like to say that your Abbot is a very interesting man. He’s sophisticated, loyal, diplomatic, and also angry. His descriptions of the younger monks are banal caricatures, and he knows it. He’s unwilling to share everything he knows. Tell me, has he complained to the Sheriff about you personally?”
Couch felt the hair on the back of his neck tingle. “How’d you know that?”
“Just a hunch.”
“What do you see that I’m not seeing?”
“It’s the leader’s paradox.”
“Loyalty to mission versus loyalty to subordinates. Every leader struggles with it. The Abbot is trying to hold up both ends at the same time. It’s a classic move when facing a crisis. So the leader needs a foil, and you got elected, at least temporarily. Good manners assure that it’s a civil put down. He probably told the sheriff that he was worried about you, not that he was angry. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of anger stirring the pot. These monks are experts at keeping a lid on it. That’s one of the things you find most frustrating, isn’t it?”
“You are right about that,” Couch said forcefully. He ran his hand through his hair, and took a few deep breaths. He was feeling the fatigue of a long day.
“I should probably get going,” he said, standing up. “I appreciate you making time for me on short notice.”
“Wait a sec,” she said, putting away her notebook. “Are you hungry, Couch?”
Surprised, he said, “I guess so, yeah.”
She looked at him, a fleeting smile crossing her face. “Do you want to have dinner with me?”
His eyes got bigger, and he glanced at his watch while pretending to look at his hands. It was almost 6:30 pm. The least he could do is buy her dinner for staying so late. He should have thought of it himself. That’s what he was thinking. “I’d love to have dinner,” he said, “my treat.”
“Oh, no,” she said sweetly, “my invitation, my treat.”
Couch wasn’t sure what to say now. He stalled for a second, then said, “How about we go Dutch?”
She shook her head, her green eyes sparkling.
Couch gawked, noting the playful eyes. “Are you asking me on a date?”
“I don’t date clients.”
“What about after I solve the case?”
“Confident, aren’t you? Don’t let my pep talk go to your head.”
“Are you asking me on a date?”
“Would you say yes?”
“Let’s wait and see if you solve the case, detective. One mystery at a time is best, I always say.”
“OK. Where are you taking me for dinner?”
She laughed, and he joined in. “We can walk down the street to Stanfords. I recommend the blackened salmon salad, with a very dry martini.”
“Deal,” he said, “and I’ll regale you about the Chinook olives I had for lunch with Frank Winishut on the res.”