The Rev. Charles Merrill Smith Is a Double Agent—He Also Commits Murder Mysteries
04/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EST
When the new Methodist minister arrived in Troy, Kans. three years ago, he paid a visit to the local Doniphan County Library, which soon received a murder mystery it had never ordered, titled Reverend Randollph and the Wages of Sin. Whodunit? Why, none other than Charles Merrill Smith, the author and, as it happens, the pastor of Troy's 100-member United Methodist Church. "The book has been fairly much in demand," the Reverend Smith says modestly. Indeed, he has just published the third of what has become a popular series. Reverend Randollph and the Fall from Grace, Inc. is about a big-time TV evangelist whose assistants are curiously murdered.
In the tradition of Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small and G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown (who, Smith freely admits, inspired his own character), the Rev. C. P. Randollph is a man of the cloth and a moonlight sleuth. An NFL quarterback before he got his call, Randollph sports vicuna jackets and expensive ties and enjoys a good martini (Bombay gin, almost no vermouth and a twist of lemon). So does his earthly creator. "We suffer a shared internal conflict," explains author Smith, 60, "between our upbringing and the enjoyment of life's pleasures."
He sometimes has to defend the racier passages in his novels. "If you leave out sex," Smith reasons, "you leave out a dimension of life." As for his use of four-letter words (only the mild ones, to be sure), he argues: "It makes the characters credible. So often," he continues, "we clergy are thought of as a third sex. I want to show we are human, with the same emotions and motivations as other people."
Like his fictional counterpart, Smith tended a sizable (2,500 members) Midwest flock at the Wesley United Methodist Church of Bloomington, Ill. for 10 years. "But I found," he recalls, "that I could not physically sustain the heavy pressure of being in charge of a large church. It's like running a large business." Indeed, in 1969 when his hypertension worsened, Smith turned his collar around and began to write full-time. After initial success with the best-selling satire How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious, he spun out six nonfiction works and three Randollph mysteries. He returned to the ministry, he explains, "because I felt out of touch. I also missed preaching and spouting ideas." One criterion for settling on Troy was that "it was only 70 miles from Kansas City, and I've always judged the civilized nature of a community by its distance from a major league ball park."
Raised in Indiana, Smith was taught to believe in "God, the Protestant version of Christianity and the virtue of sports." Thus he lettered in football, basketball and track at high school in Bluffton, Ind. Unlike Randollph, though, he didn't turn pro but like his grandfather, father and brother, entered the ministry.
Smith works at the dining room table in his century-old frame house—two or three days a week on his latest book, two days minimum on the Sunday sermon. Writing runs in the family. Smith co-authored a look at the generation gap (Different Drums) with his son Terrence, who has produced five novels of his own, including one made into a movie (The Thief Who Came to Dinner). His daughter-in-law Harriet Hahn is a novelist, and his wife of 39 years, Betty, has published poetry. Daughter Dianne Williamson is publisher and editor of a city magazine back in Bloomington.
The Reverend Smith clearly enjoys the good life that his books make possible. "If you invite me for dinner and offer me a drink, I'll take one," he says. "I'm not a frivolous sybarite, but at times I feel a little guilty." That's when the cleric falls back on religious history: "I believe Jesus enjoyed dinner parties, good food and wine. That's a comfort to Randollph and me."