Searching for community, solving crime
Review of Unpardonable Sins by David Saul Bergman (Wipf & Stock Publishing, 2021)
Appearing under a pen name that represents a collaboration between Daniel Born and the late Dale Suderman, Unpardonable Sins skillfully blends two unlikely genres: crime fiction and Mennonite literature. In doing so, the novel conforms to and departs from the archetypal elements of both genres in intriguing ways.
As with many Mennonite novels, the protagonist is at odds with his community. However, this is not a young person struggling with conservative Mennonite strictures, but rather a middle-aged pastor of a progressive Mennonite congregation in Chicago.
Even so, John Reimer is a man in crisis. The Mennonite congregation he is attempting to shepherd is ambivalent. His relationships seem unsatisfying and transitory. And he is grappling with the implications of a wife slowly dying from a terrible disease. He is a man on the run, both literally as we follow him jogging through the streets of Chicago and figuratively as we see him attempting to find equilibrium both emotionally and spiritually.
What makes Reimer’s life even more precarious is that he, somewhat by chance, finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation, and his involvement takes him even deeper into the Chicago landscape – a perfect backdrop for a noir novel. Unlike with many crime novels, though, the city is not simply a dark, confusing and vice-filled space. There is an intriguing Sandburg-esque quality to this portrayal of Chicago – equal parts celebration of the life and vitality of the city as well condemnation of its violence and corruption.
As the novel progresses, numerous characters, including members of the police force, question Reimer’s growing involvement in the case. Why would an upstanding Mennonite pastor go deeper and deeper into tracking down leads in a murder investigation involving a victim he didn’t know? This is more than simple curiosity or boredom, as we see with many “unofficial detectives” (think L.B. Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window). There are numerous moments when Reimer could simply walk away, but he doesn’t. His motivation seems somewhat bewildering.
Reimer’s precarious emotional state, however, carefully revealed by the authors, offers an initial answer. As a good Mennonite, Reimer should be able to find balance in community with meaningful relationships. But he seems in perpetual search for one – certainly not the conservative Kleine Gemeinde community of his youth Meade, Kansas, which he has rejected but also not the progressive Mennonite congregation that he currently pastors.
He is looking for something else – perhaps more eclectic and meaningful. The investigation allows Reimer to connect with people in ways that matter, and so the investigation becomes an act of therapy and a way for him to create an alternate community.
A key to the question of motivation is also found in the novel’s title. As in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, where the protagonist wrestles with an inscrutable passage from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Reimer struggles repeatedly with the hermeneutical challenges of 1 John 5:16 and the notion of a sin for which there is no forgiveness. The murder investigation provides a means for exploring this theological mystery that has consumed him for years.
Reimer might be a struggling pastor, but as the novel reaches its climax, it is his unique pastoral skill set that allows him to uncover evidence that the real detectives in the case have missed. His ability (perhaps thanks in part to Dante?) to identify a certain type of diabolical treachery becomes, in the end, the key to unlocking the mystery of not only the murderer’s identity but also the enigmatic unpardonable sin.