Don’t ask me exactly when, but I recently I read a find from a school fundraiser book sale: Mary Jo Adamson’s The Blazing Tree (Michael Merrick Mysteries). Now and then going on instinct pays off very well indeed.
The novel is in the first person voice of Michael Merrick, a young man who has been through hell: after suffering terrible losses, he became addicted to opium – which always sounds almost worse than more common modern addictions – more tempting, in a way, and more impossible to shake free. Someone, he didn’t at the time know who, plucked him out of his opium dreaming, put him in the hands of a surprising man who dragged him back to life, and plunked him down at the beginning of a path to a new life. Not an easy path, and not one Michael is grateful for, for the most part – but new, and positive.
This new life has him working as a police news reporter – not a high-paying or highly respected job, but it’s better than nightmares in an opium den. The book begins with Michael being summoned to the home of the newspaper’s editor, Jasper Quincey, an eccentric whose foibles – or some of them – are shortly explained by his fascination with the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers. An elder of the society has come to Quincey as a friend, hoping for help finding out what is behind a series of fires that have been started in two communities, in the last of which an elderly man died. Quincey feels that Michael is the man for the job: he will go undercover in the society and investigate.
Michael is not thrilled. He decides to refuse. But … somehow … his refusal doesn’t take, and he finds himself entering into the community. And in no time at all he has fallen in love.
The main problem with falling in love with a woman of the Shaker community is that upon entering into the life one pledges to lead a life of celibacy … In order to marry, one would have to leave. And the woman Michael loves is a dedicated member of the community …
The suspects in the arsons seem to be many – including a boy Michael very much fears is the one, which would break his heart as the boy has become dear to him, as have many of the members of the community. (Others, not so much.) It’s a race – to figure out who it is before any more fires are lit, before anyone else can die. It works, very well.
And simply as a novel, it works. The love story, Michael’s story, the story of the Shakers – which was utterly fascinating, and I’d be tempted, really I would – are all woven into a really lovely book. It’s now out of print, I believe – pity – and there was only one more about Michael, but I’ll need to seek out everything Mary Jo Adamson wrote. It was that good.
And in the midst of the story, in the Shakers’ celebrating, they sing, and dance to, a song I learned from Judy Collins’s version: