By Heidi Simmons

Holy Ghost
by John Sandford – fiction

When Mother Mary shows up on toast, a wall or in a church, she can really draw a crowd.  In John Sandfords’ Holy Ghost: A Virgil Flowers Novel (Putnam, 373 pages) pilgrims turn a dying town into a deadly destination.

The story takes place in a small Minnesota community that has a population of less then 700 folks. There is no industry, no commerce and no money.  People have abandoned their homes and business for somewhere else. 


The mayor, who drinks beer and shoots flies in his house with a gun, was put on the ballot as a joke, and he was elected.  His slogan: “I’ll do what I can.” 

A precocious teen suggests to the mayor a provocative idea to bring life back to the community and make a bunch of money in the process.   The Mayor is game and they hatch a plan. 

When Mother Mary appears with a message at the local church, the cell phone videos are posted on social media and the footage goes viral.  Soon the town is swarming with pilgrims.  Life in the small town is revitalized.  The Mayor and his young partner are raking in the dough selling candy bars, potato chips and potpies.

It’s all-good until two of the visitors are shot in front of the church by a sniper.  No one saw the shooter and no one heard the bullet.  Virgil Flowers, an agent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is called in to investigate.  The shootings that is, not the apparition.

As the investigation gets underway, a local believer is killed as she leaves the sanctuary and Flowers is just a block away!  The attacks quickly diminish the number of visiting pilgrims, which in turn impacts the city’s sudden financial windfall. 

A string of local murders follow and Flowers is challenged by the increasingly bloody small town mystery.  Is it an angry fanatic or a religious hater?  What he thought would be reasonably simple gets complicated.  Everyone owns a gun and can shoot well, and the many suspects all seem to have alibis. None of the killings make sense since the whole 

Author Sandford is a pro at bringing to life colorful and quirky characters.  He weaves his mystery with provocative details that keep the reader engaged and guessing, and he does it with a sense of humor. 

Appearances of the Christ’s mother are called “Marian apparitions.”  But in this story, she not only appears, she has a message about the meek inheriting the earth, which she delivered in Spanish with a Minnesotan accent to the mostly Mexican, padre/preacher-less Catholic congregation.

In the book, the reader never knows how the Mayor and his accomplices devised their Mary sighting plan or pulled it off.  We meet them, but don’t actually hear the idea. Next, the story flashes forward to the success it has brought the mayor, his cohorts and the town. 

I liked how the author structured his novel, but I was hoping that just maybe there was going to be an actual mystical moment for the crazy characters of this small community in addition to solving the mystery of the killer or killers. That would have been fun.

Investigator Flowers is unconcerned about the Mayor’s scam even when he accidently comes across evidence that could prove the Marian apparition was faked.

Sandford also felt the need to bring several more investigators into the story.  At one point there are so many of Flowers’ law enforcement pals at a stake-out, I felt Flowers was lost in the shuffle.  Maybe too much machismo.  Although, there is one male cop who is learning he can no longer call the women he works with by pet names such as honey, sweetie or babe for fear of being, not only reprimanded for sexual harassment, but walloped by his beautiful, smart and strong female part

There is a moment where Flowers considers the community’s demographic of conservative religious right-wing Trump supporters and their potential to do harm, but he leaves it at that, never taking a stand regarding their unhinged fanaticism.

Sandford has written over forty books. This is his eleventh in the Virgil Flowers series.  Sandford is always an entertaining and fast-paced read.  His killers are compelling and fresh, but sometimes I want more meat with my potatoes. 

There was an opportunity to get to know Flowers’ belief system — religious and political — but Sandford didn’t go there shying away from important and timely themes or debate.