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Cult Concerns 

Darrell James makes an impressive mystery-novel debut with 'Nazareth Child'

What do you get when you mix a Lisbeth Salander type with a David Karesh/Warren Jeffs hybrid?

One ticked-off girl with a gun. A cultish religious showman. An aging guy with a taste for young women and Old Testament epithets. A cataclysmic showdown.

Darrell James' Nazareth Child.

Nazareth Child is Arizonan James' first full-length work of fiction. Since the book is billed as a "Del Shannon novel," it appears that we can expect further adventures from the girl with the gun.

The book opens with a prologue set in Kentucky in the 1980s. Having stayed behind after a church service, a young woman unable to conceive a child meets up in the dark with the equally young—but powerful—"healer." With her husband and the rest of the congregation seeking solace in prayer, the young woman seeks solace from a less-spiritual source. She would, she thinks fleetingly, name a daughter "Del."

Shift to Tucson, 30 years later.

Del Shannon is a crack field operative for a private-investigating agency. A slim, taut, tightly wound 29-year-old with cropped hair, a pierced navel and a wrist tattoo, she can track down and haul in fugitives and errant husbands in record time. What she can't do, however, is track down her own history. When she approaches her father—who raised her—about her mother and her background, he clams up and opens another bottle. When the FBI comes to their dilapidated Tucson house and invites Del to do undercover work in a Kentucky religious compound, her father opens one bottle too many.

The central conflict in Nazareth Child becomes a clash between the FBI and the questionable Nazareth Church—or, on the personal level, between Del and the leader of the church, the intense, 50-something "healer," Silas Rule. The FBI had been monitoring the group's activities through an undercover agent, but they lost contact with him. Their new plan is to send in a pair of agents to scope out the church. They come to Del because—surprise—she was born in Nazareth Church and inherited a house there. When an agent tantalizes her with information about her mother, the deal's clinched.

An action-driven book, it doesn't have much subtlety or ambiguity of character development. Characters line up pretty much on Del's or Silas' sides. Silas, the son of the cult's founder, has the "gift": He's charismatic, with blazing eyes and flowing silver hair, as well as a commanding presence, a golden tongue and reputed powers to heal. He also has an insatiable appetite for other men's wives ... and their daughters. That he's able to exercise his gift to make personal and financial gain is a testament to both his drive and his inner circle.

In addition to brainless and beefy goons, Del's inner circle includes Nigel, a midget rescued from carnival life; and his one son, Cullen. Cullen has all the uncontrolled appetites of his father, but none of his charisma or brains. Nigel has the intelligence to shore up Silas' false ministry, but he's physically vulnerable—and abused by the short-tempered father and son.

Into their world, the FBI drops Del and an agent from New Jersey, Frank Falconet. Del and Frank are to pass themselves off as a married couple and move into her father's old cabin.

James draws on what we've begun to recognize as the psychology of mind control over the emotionally fragile. Early on, Frank attends a revival in which Silas intuits and "heals" various attendees. It's easy to find a cancer case to cure when you have Nigel whispering prayer requests into your ear piece ("aisle nine, seat two ... cervical tumor"). A wealthy wayward husband who suddenly repudiates his sins becomes a natural mark to fill Silas' coffers ... and to catalyze the action.

James makes a smooth debut. Nazareth Child successfully captures and sustains interest, and stages a couple of imaginative showdowns. The rural Kentucky setting is suitable for religious fanaticism and moral depravity; some of the best writing in the book describes a swamp on the cult's grounds and a "natural" disaster brought about by a face-off with the FBI.

James has included some unexpected and satisfying facets to the element of Del's mother's story, and stuck an interesting spark between the two undercover agents. If some of the cult-related action seems unconvincing, you're willing to overlook it.

In the end, you like Del Shannon, and you'll welcome another crime writer to the local fraternity.

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