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by John R. Vanek
Coffeetown Press, February 2018
304 pages
ISBN: 1603816194

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Jake Austin ran wild in high school. A popular varsity football player, he had his choice of girls to date, and even though he began to develop serious feelings for Emily, he was happy to have sex with her friend when the opportunity came. Emily rejected him, his home life had never been good, and after high school he decided to enlist rather than avoid the draft and take his chances in Vietnam. Like most vets, he rarely talked about his time in that world of horror but he did return to the States with skills: his service as a medic got him into medical school and he was able to become a physician.

As the years passed, Jake recalled Emily with sorrow and realized what a fool he had been. He also recognized that the Vietnam War had damaged him mentally, emotionally, and spiritually and gradually he turned to God for direction. Now, at the beginning of John Vanek's fine novel DEROS, he is returning for the first time to Oberlin, Ohio where he grew up, now not only a physician but also a priest of the Camillian Order, an order that combines spiritual and medical ministry. Fr. Jake Austin has been loaned by his Superior to the Bishop of Cleveland, his Superior's close friend, to cover a small parish because its pastor is dying of cancer and to hold the fort until a replacement can be found. And because the duties in the small parish are so light weekends only he is expected to join the staff of St. Joseph's Hospital, Oberlin's source of medical care for the poor, as a doctor full time.

We quickly meet the crotchety Irish housekeeper at the rectory and one of Fr. Jake's high school classmates, a big man named "Tree" Macon with whom he played football and who at one time was an NFL prospect. Now, Tree is Oberlin's Chief of Police and just before Fr. Jake got to Oberlin, a murdered woman was found down by the river. Fr. Jake and Tree team up somewhat uneasily to look into the crime because the woman was also one of their classmates. In a small town like Oberlin everyone pretty much knows everyone and everyone keeps running into everyone else so it is not a surprise that Fr. Jake reconnects with Emily. What is surprising is that she married another of their classmates, an awful man who abused her, and is now divorced and coping the best she can with blindness caused by an inherited condition that had earlier taken her father's eyesight.

As Tree progresses with basic police work to unravel the very few clues and Fr. Jake sounds out people he knew years ago and looks at things from a more medical and psychological point of view as well as a spiritual one, there is another murder of a classmate and then another. Most people are afraid and lead after lead seems to end up in a dead end.

What is fascinating about this mystery, one that promises to be the first of a series featuring Fr. Jake Austin, is his combination of careers. I, for one, did not know that the Catholic Church had an order that celebrated just that combination. The mystery itself is well conceived and executed and the several central characters nicely drawn. Perhaps as a reviewer I am always looking for those qualities and even expecting them (often, alas, to disappointment) but Vanek's success is unusually grounded. He is himself a physician with what he calls a passion for writing. He also worked at St. Joseph's Hospital yes, it's a real hospital in Oberlin, Ohio yes, it's a real place. This exquisitely useful background makes Vanek's tale ring with authenticity.

I say, "Hurrah!" I always have room to read another good series.

Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.

Reviewed by Diana Borse, January 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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