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"There was a strange smell coming from Belden Woods." So starts "Conspiracy" (Pax Publications, Olympia, Wash., $15, paperbound), the fourth book by Father Jack Frerker, a mystery novel set in Southern Illinois, with a Catholic priest as the protagonist. Frerker, who now lives in Washington State, is a former resident of Carbondale, where he was a priest at the Newman Center. His familiarity with Southern Illinois gives his new novel a feeling of authenticity. Although much of the action takes place in the fictional town of "Algoma," the author brings some real area communities, such as Anna, Carbondale, Belleville and Mount Vernon, into the story. The strange smell in the "Belden Woods," noticed by a group of third-grade boys, is not explained until many years later, when a skeleton is discovered there, ironically, by another third grader and his dog. The original group of boys, now grown to adulthood, most with families of their own, meet at a truck stop cafe outside Algoma to discuss the new discovery. Did the skeleton that was found have anything to do with the smell they had noticed many years ago? Should they tell the sheriff? Eventually one of their number - Jim - does tell Sheriff Lawrence Toler, figuring it might help the investigation by establishing a time frame. Soon, some strange things begin to happen to members of the "skeleton crew," as the original group of former third-graders starts to be called. Two of them - Rick and Harry - have tires on their cars slashed. One - Jim - is involved in a wreck when one of the tires on his car blows out. It turns out the tire was nearly new and the tread was not damaged. The blowout apparently was caused by a puncture in the side of the tire. The "skeleton crew" are sorry they didn't pay more attention to the men who were at the truck stop when they discussed the case. Someone apparently overheard their conversation. Father John Wintermann, pastor of St. Helena's church in Algoma, becomes involved in the case, when, as a friend of the sheriff, he is asked to "brainstorm" over it. He later becomes much more deeply involved ... but that would be giving away too much of the story to go into here. Meanwhile, the case becomes more mysterious when a fourth member of the skeleton crew - Willy - has the glass in a picture frame in his home shattered by some kind of projectile. And it gets much more serious when a fifth member of the skeleton crew - Pete - is killed in a car crash apparently caused when his vehicle is deliberately struck from behind and pushed into a ditch. Frerker tells the story of the Belden Woods skeleton and its aftermath in a straightforward manner, but he is able - through the eyes of his Father Wintermann character - to instill a spiritual element into the tale that takes it out of the realm of the ordinary murder mystery.

Ben Gelman, Illinois

I have read all three of the Father John mysteries ... Each one is a great mystery. Father John joins an elite goup, G. K. Chesterton' s Father Brown) and Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael. I have lived in Southern Illinois for more than 80 years, and have worked in most of the counties, as well as Chicago. Thanks for the autograph.

Joe Cunningham, Illinois

I enjoyed your new book.To me it was captivating - I couldn't put it down.

Evelyn Mann, Illinois

"I just finished CONSPIRACY and thoroughly enjoyed it. Once again you worked a Southern Illinois peculiarity into one of your books: funeral hot dogs! Actually we just refer to them as 'funeral dogs,' leaving out 'hot.' In our United Methodist church we do serm at family dinners after funerals, but also at Vacation Bible School luncheons and with mulligan. They are delicious ... please continue to keep us informed ... when you have another book hyot off the press!"

Terry Mason, Illinois

While you were visiting this fall, Serena and I bought all four of your books after mass one Sunday. I can say without reservation that we both throughly enjoyed them. I suspect that there is a little of you in Fr. John Winterman. If you write another book let us know, we will be anxiously waiting to read it.

David & Serena Cronk, WI

As one steps into the small town world of Fr. John Wintermann, it is as if one returns to the days of a simpler life where people are friendly and supportive of one another, and even the "Bad Guys" have redeeming qualities. Fr. Frerker has written a series of murder mysteries, 'Tis True, but the stories in each case are told in a way that does not offend the senses. As happens in many instances today, shock value seems to predominate in this genre. These plots are original and unique. The amateur detective, Fr. Wintermann, is a gentle man whose wholesome relationships with the townsfolk manage to bring about the innate positive qualities in their lives. One imagines a bit of the author's character sneaks into his problem solving hero. These stories are full of creative and satisfying reading with some subtle sermonizing for later contemplation.

Julianne Biehl, Texas

I really enjoyed your discussion in (CONSPIRACY) of the sacred nature of the confessional and a discussion not heard on TV as a simple "I can just avoid it by playing word games" explanation. The other discussion that was helpful to me was the discussion at the abbey in the northwest where the visiting Priest and his mentor ... discussed the concept of the mental side of sin.

I do not know if this is the niche you wanted to find, but I believe your books could fill a need for conversational discussion of these complex topics. As we become more of an informational society, maybe society needs to gain a better understanding of the educational side of your preparation and a priest and the on-going continuing education. I actually think RICA programs could use your books as introductions to topics or even to the program itself.

Bernard Jasper, California

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revised September 26, 2009 @ 9:49 pm