As I have noted before, I have always had a generally negative view of Christian fiction despite not having read particularly widely in the genre. In the past what I saw just didn’t interest me. But reading some blogs and website caused me to feel that a re-evaluation was in order. So I decided to check what people thought was the best in this field. Madman by Tracy Groot, a historical novel built around the story of Legion, the demon possessed man in Mark 5:1-20, was one such recommendation. Madman turned out to be an interesting and well written historical novel. It was a little slow in a few spots, and at times seemed a little too intent on showing the historical research of the author, but in the end it was still an entertaining and illuminating look at the dark side of the mind and soul.
The central story of Madman concerns two interlocking mysteries. The first deals with the dissolution of a Socratic academy set up in Palestine. The founder and financial sponsor of the academy send his servant, and fellow scholar, Tallis from Athens to investigate and see if he can find out what happened.
What he finds is a path of destruction surrounding those associated with the school. As the book’s back jacket describes it: “One was murdered. One committed suicide. One worships in the temple of Dionysus. And one â€¦ one is a madman.” The mystery of who this madman is and what has led him to madness is the focus of the second mystery.
The link between the two turns out to be the inn where Tallis is staying. At first frustrated at the lack of answers or information, and quickly running out of money, Tallis eventually begins to unravel the horrifying details of the academy’s last days. He is also drawn into the lives of the customers and staff of the inn. When he is forced into the front lines of the battle between good and evil, Tallis finds both answers and allies at the inn.
Groot is skillful at playing out the mysteries and the back-stories of the characters. We get to know Tallis as he seeks to solve the mystery and we learn the clues of the mystery as he learns them. The developments seem to happen naturally within the story not forced or just for effect. Relationships develop as the characters are developed and the action follows from these connections.
Groot also does a good job of describing ancient Palestine in a believable way. The time and setting seem real; they are not just a prop for a run of the mill mystery. She smoothly weaves in insights about clothing, food, and customs for the most part.
Despite this smoothness, at times the story gets bogged down in detail and internal dialog. When Tallis spends too much time thinking to himself the story loses its pace. The weaving in of the cult of Dionysus provided a lot of the emotional back story for Tallis as well as the motivation for the destruction of the academy, but it also slowed the story down a few times.
One of the more interesting aspects of the story is Groot’s exploration of madness and demon possession. She describes them as a sort of mental, emotional, and spiritual trap. Evil takes the arrogance and selfishness of the host mind and turns it in on itself. Soon the person is seeking out the evil tricked into thinking that they are making a choice out of free will – and one that will lead to better things – when instead they are being enslaved.
Once trapped in this hellish place there is no escape from within. One of the former teachers at the academy tries in vain to find a way out of this madness – if there is a way in there must be a way out he reasons – but is instead driven there himself. Something greater than self is needed to rescue those caught in this snare.
This spiritual dimension is slowly introduced into the story as Tallis begins to face the true nature of the evil he faces. But it is only at the end of the story that it makes its impact. The miracle Jesus performs is only a sliver of the book but it packs a punch because of the tension that has been built up by the preceding events. Again, Groot isn’t heavy handed nor does she over-write the section to smack the reader in the face with an overt message. In the end the message is simple: you can choose; between good and evil, you can choose.
It is interesting that one of the reasons I didn’t read a lot of Christian fiction is because it seemed dominated by historical fiction. I am not much of a fan of historical fiction because I often get distracted trying to sort out the history rather than focus on the story (same with historical movies). Historical fiction can also be a prop for writers of lesser skill and imagination. This was not a problem with Madman or Groot. She is clearly a skilled writer and story teller and the setting merely provided a hook to tell a good story. The line between hook and prop may be a fine one but it is an important one.
So add Madman to the list of good versus evil stories I seem to be reading lately. This one just happens to be set in ancient Palestine and play off of a Biblical miracle. If you like historical novels, psychological mysteries, or just interesting stories with well developed characters check out Madman by Tracy Groot.