Axel Brand is the nom de plume of award-winning historical-fiction novelist Richard S. Wheeler. He uses Brand for his crime/mystery series featuring Milwaukee Police Lt. Joe Sonntag. The Homicidal Saint, the most recent in the series, is the first Sonntag novel I've read. I have some catching up to do. (Incidentally, the 25¢ "price" on the cover is in keeping with the '40s look of the new Crossroads Press digital editions of the Lt. Sonntag series. The Kindle versions are $3.99.)
The Homicidal Saint is narrated in a lighter voice than the historical novels, which might sound odd considering it opens with a man shooting his wife to death in the basement of a Lutheran church during a potluck dinner. Lt. Sonntag and his wife witness the murder along with the rest of the congregation attending the dinner. The killer willingly surrenders. He is polite and accommodating. He tells Sonntag and anyone who is willing to listen that he killed his wife to protect others from her. He claimed she killed their four children. The killer claimed his wife was a religious fanatic who ruled the household while he spent most of his time in a laboratory making false teeth.
Sonntag, who is chief of detectives for the Milwaukee PD, enlists Frank Silva, one of his best investigators, to help him determine if the children are in fact dead. They learn one boy died of polio at age eight. They locate a daughter, married and living in Arizona, who claims her mother disowned her and sent her away when she reached adolescence. Two brothers, however, are missing. The investigation leads Sonntag and Silva to a mysterious “institute” where wayward boys are sent to “have the Devil beaten out of them” and turn them into God-fearing men.
|Axel Brand (aka Richard S. Wheeler)|
I especially enjoyed The Homicidal Saint because of its setting. I grew up in Wisconsin, as did Wheeler, and felt right at home in the tableau. The story is set during the Truman administration, a time I remember as a young boy. As Axel Brand, Wheeler brings to this novel the same eye for detail and commitment to accuracy as in his fictionalized histories.
Lt. Sonntag is a believable honest cop from this period. He and his wife, Lisbeth, who helps him think through his cases, are a loving couple with heartaches of their own. Living modestly on Sonntag's meager pay, their day-to-day concerns near the end of World War II will ring true to any reader who remembers those years. The Sonntags lost one son to polio and have another in the Navy. They're real people.
I found The Homicidal Saint a welcome break from the heavier noir mysteries that seemed most popular during that time.
[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]