Robert Whitlow delightfully serves up a helping of legal drama in MOUNTAIN TOP, an engaging story about the power of the supernatural and one man's calling.
Attorney-turned-pastor Mike Andrews is tempted to dismiss lawn maintenance man Sam Miller as a nutcase. Sam has dreams and visions, and sprinkles phrases like "Papa says…" about God in otherwise normal conversations. His wife of 45 years, Muriel, affirms that Sam can also predict the future. Who can blame Mike for being skeptical? Of the Millers, Mike's wife Peg notes, "They're simple, yet complicated. Harmless, but a little scary."
The peculiar yet likeable Sam also feels led to write letters to people who "Papa" shows him are making wrong or evil decisions --- and it's because of an ill-placed letter that the trouble begins. Sam sees Mike as a sort of dreamer in training, and Mike's re-evaluation of his own faith and calling is key to the book. Whitlow compellingly uses the metaphor of Mike's strolls in the Blue Mountains to show how he finds perspective on his life and his past. And, as Sam tells him, "…a mountain top isn't just a place on earth; it's a vision Papa puts in your heart." It's a great image, and it works well throughout the book.
Like you would expect from Whitlow (author of LIFE EVERLASTING, LIFE SUPPORT, THE SACRIFICE, THE TRIAL and THE LIST), he's a whiz at legal thrillers and courtroom drama. MOUNTAIN TOP has plenty of legal excitement. Characters are in and out of jail, and Michael finds that his reluctant legal assistance to Sam gets him in hot water at church. Indeed, church politics are woven throughout (much as they are in a real-life pastor's world). There are some nice details about fraudulent activity that will appeal to crime thriller aficionados.
But, as he did in the engaging and poignant novel JIMMY, Whitlow isn't afraid to venture out of straight-up legal drama to develop the plot outside the courtroom. His writing talent has come to depend less on the immediate courtroom scene and more on the story. JIMMY, his previous book, was strong evidence of this.
I especially appreciated the touches of local color throughout. Mike has a penchant for "livermush," something I hadn't read about anywhere since Jan Karon's Mitford series, and there are some beautiful passages about hiking in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Most of Whitlow's characters are interesting, including Muriel, of whom Whitlow beautifully writes, "…her tanned face was now lined with wrinkles that were the road map to a hundred different ways to smile." The exception to this might be Peg Andrews, who remains a bit flat and an enigma throughout --- perhaps intentionally --- although the marriage relationship with Mike is nicely developed.
Whitlow knows how to leave readers hanging at the end of the chapter, which keeps the suspense high and the pages turning. Although the type of criminal activity you'll find here isn't new to suspense novels, the character of Sam Miller keeps the interest level high. Dialogue is stiff in places, but Whitlow's writing is lovely and often humorous. Of Mike's Little Creek Church, he writes, "For more than 140 years, the congregation of independent Presbyterians averaged 50 to 100 members with the graveyard behind the church being the only part of the church that steadily grew." I laughed out loud. He also has some great one-liners. One of my favorites: "Sam Miller did some of his best work while asleep." It would have been a great opening line for the book.
Sam's own role as a visionary Christian will be a natural discussion point for readers. How do we know someone is truly gifted with dreams and visions --- and not just mentally ill? Is it true, as Sam tells Mike, that "Even a dream with warning often has a way of escape"? Book groups will appreciate the lively discussion potential here, while Whitlow fans will be left anticipating his next novel.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on October 10, 2006