The Basilica Cathedral of St. Louis is one the city’s great landmarks located near several other landmarks. Situated on Lindell Boulevard in what we call the Central West End, it’s close to Forest Park, the St. Louis Art Museum, and the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex and medical center. The cathedral’s distinctive green roof can be seen from miles away on Interstate 64, and its interior is famous for what is the largest installation of mosaic decoration anywhere in the world. Pope John Paul II said mass here when he visited St. Louis in 1999, and it was the church where baseball great Stan Musial’s funeral was conducted. (While not quite as momentous, my oldest son’s graduation ceremony was held here in 1998.)
It’s also an unlikely seen for a murder, this place that even we Protestants call “the New Cathedral” to distinguish it from the “Old Cathedral” adjacent to the St. Louis Arch. But that’s exactly what it is in The Broken Cross, the second Cameron Ballack mystery by Luke Davis.
An attorney, fresh from a major courtroom win defending the St. Louis Archdiocese, is found stabbed to death in one of the cathedral’s chapels. Ballack and his partner Tori Vaughan, police detectives assigned to the suburban St. Charles County Police Department, are currently assigned to the special investigation unit that investigates major crimes with significant religious connections.
In this case, Ballack is assigned as the lead detective, a not-exactly-welcomed move from the other officers involved in the investigation. They’re from the City of St. Louis’s Police Department, and they don’t initially take kindly to having to report from the rube from St. Charles. Not to mention the fact that Ballack is wheelchair-bound. But Ballack is in charge because of his success in solving a series of murders at an Orthodox seminary in St. Charles County, once that nearly cost him and his partner’s lives (Litany of Secrets, the first Cameron Ballack mystery).
This case involves the scandal of sexual abuse that engulfed the Catholic Church, a priest shuffled from ministry to ministry, a suicide from five years before, lawyers and real estate executives trying to shield the Archdiocese’s assets, and a more-than-sufficient number of suspects.
It is one enormously satisfying mystery story. Davis is a great storyteller who does something interesting with his lead character. What might have easily become too much sympathy for the man in the wheelchair is blunted by Ballack’s character – slightly acerbic, something of a chip on his shoulder, not exactly the guy you’d like to have a beer with. Despite his Christian parents, he’s trying to find God, not entirely convinced of his existence. And he even has a love interest. In short, he’s recognizably human. His first-rate mind and ability to process information and connect the dots will eventually identify the killer. But he does make mistakes.
Davis teaches at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis (and yes, the story does contain a small plug for the school as Ballack’s alma mater which I can forgive, since it was also my youngest son’s high school). He’s also taught at schools in Louisiana, Florida, and Virginia. He describes himself as “Presbyterian body, Lutheran heart, Anglican blood, Orthodox spirit,” all of which have served him well in writing the Cameron Ballack mysteries.
I have to say I can’t help but enjoy reading a story with recognizable sights from the city where I live. In addition to the Cathedral, there’s the Drury Inn downtown, Cardinal stadium, Whitfield School, familiar office buildings and law offices in Clayton (the county seat of St. Louis County), references to my own suburb of Kirkwood, Fast Eddie’s Restaurant across the Mississippi in Alton – well, you get the picture.
The Broken Cross is a great story about horrifying events straight from the news that all of us are familiar with. It’s a fine mystery. And it ultimately is about what can happen when the church – any church – doesn’t deal with the sin that threatens to destroy it.
Luke Davis blogs at Sacred Chaos.
Photograph: Basilica Cathedral of St. Louis, scene of the first murder in The Broken Cross.