Stephen Grant is pastor of St. Mary’s Lutheran Church, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation in Manorville, a hamlet on Long Island’s East End. Previously, he was an assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency. His two vocations come together in Warrior Monk, Ray Keating’s first installment in a series of 15 novels and shorter stories.
I am a fan of murder mysteries and espionage stories. Booksellers offer a wide variety of choices in those two genres, so it’s possible to develop a niche interest. As a minister, I have developed such an interest by focusing on murder mysteries that involve clergy. So far, I’ve read G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, William Brodrick’s Father Anselm, and James Runcie’s Grantchester series. There are many others.
The Pastor Stephen Grant series is the first I have read that falls into the espionage genre, however. I have two easy rules of thumb for both murder and espionage stories: First, is the plot interesting enough that I want to keep turning pages? Second, does it push my willing suspension of disbelief too far?
Warrior Monk answers the first question affirmatively. I kept reading, finishing it over the course of a single weekend. The problem comes in with the second question. Put simply: Is it believable that a CIA assassin could become a Lutheran minister? Sure, why not!
But could that Lutheran minister be drawn back into the world of intrigue? That was the harder question Ray Keating needed to answer. And for the most part, he succeeded. I say “for the most part” because the minister part of me thinks it would be much harder for clergy to dip their toes back into Grant’s former line of work than Keating’s portrayal of Grant lets on. And I’m not sure all theologians will agree with Grant’s Augustinian thoughts on just war and enhanced interrogation. (Then there’s Grant’s very Lutheran consumption of alcohol, which teatotaling pastor might not cotton to.)
Still, all such novels involve a measure of implausibility to and second guessing on the part of readers. That’s why our suspension of disbelief is willing.
The big plot line in Warrior Monk is Grant participating—as both LCMS pastor and (former) CIA agent—in the visit to the U.S. by Pope Augustine, the Nigerian head of the Roman Catholic Church. This pope is launching “A Public Mission of Mere Christianity” in order to unite fellow believers in a sort of theological and cultural co-belligerence. Readers of First Things and Touchstone are no doubt familiar with and supportive of such a project. (Keating explicitly mentions Touchstone, but not FT.)
The problem is that a consortium of left- and right-wing groups are opposed to that co-belligerence, and launch a well-heeled public campaign against it. One particularly radical wing even hires an assassin to take out the pope, which is why the Vatican seems keen on getting someone like Pastor Grant on board with the pope’s visit.
Subsidiary plot lines include visits—both welcome and unwelcome—from people in Grant’s CIA past, potential romances for the still-single LCMS pastor, a few well-deserved jabs at unprincipled politicians and their even more unprincipled advisors, and a send-up of Hollywood liberals in all their clueless, weird glory.
And, appropriate to a novel involving a member of the clergy, we get a little theology, commentary on social matters, and reflections on the divided state of the Church. For the record, Grant is theologically orthodox, morally upright, and somewhere on the conservative end of the cultural and political spectrum.
Because this is Keating’s first novel, I graded on the curve, giving it five stars, though in other circumstances, I would have given it four. There is a long tradition of clergy murder mysteries, but as I said, this was the first clergy espionage novel I have come across. So I cut Keating some slack. I did enjoy the novel, however, even with a few hesitations. This is one of those series whose first installment, while not perfect, has a lot of promise.
So, I look forward to reading the second installment: Root of All Evil?
Ray Keating, Warrior Monk: A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel, 2nd ed. (Self-published, 2019).
P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.