“….Satan’s greatest trick wasn’t making people think he didn’t exist–it was convincing Christians that he couldn’t speak from the pulpit.”
This realization, offered as the wisdom of Detective William Hursel’s Grandfather, underpins the novel 13:24: A Story of Faith and Obsession. Chris Pesner, a fourteen year old outcast, kills his mother and her ex-boyfriend in the first 20 pages. His motive for the crime at first centers around his obsession with a heavy metal band fronted by Josh Sebala, who himself is hiding a tragic past. The detective in charge of investigating the crimes is perplexed as to why someone would act in such a cold-blooded manner, and his ensuing investigation uncovers a seedy underworld of criminals who torture children for personal gain. His first instincts prove correct, Chris’ crimes are fed by his obsession with the band–but the scope and degree of how intricately woven the lives of Chris and Josh are makes even William question who is good and who is evil. The book refreshingly departs from the standard crime novel, asking the reader not to guess the identity of the killer–but to question what it means to be guilty and what constitutes justice.
13:24 is the freshman novel of author M. Dolan Hickmon. The novel itself is a master class in delicious contradictions. It has the Pop Lit readability and pacing of Dan Brown- yet the welcome attention to mood and detail of Ray Bradbury. It follows the familiar formula of a Who-done-it murder mystery- but instead of guessing who the murderer is it asks you to guess in intricate ethical brushstrokes who bears the responsibility for the grisly crime. It remains gripping and readable in spite of a weight and subject matter that makes it difficult to keep turning pages. It allows both a hero and an anti-hero exist on the same page and you find yourself cheering for the both of them.
The title itself is a nod to a passage in the Book of Proverbs. The overarching plot and theme are religious in nature, though the author seems to have taken great care to make the book accessible to readers who have nothing more than a cursory knowledge of Christian doctrine. At the same time, Hickmon’s obvious comfort with and attention to doctrine and scripture allow readers with a more academic knowledge of Christianity to relish in the subtext as well as ponder more deeply the questions and challenges asked of mainstream Protestantism. It is a delicate balance to keep a novel accessible to the casual reader yet provocative to the academic- and Hickmon has managed to accomplish this admirably.
A reader who has been weaned on scripture will immediately be struck with the foreshadowing offered by the name of the heavy metal band fronted by a central character, yet those with no foreknowledge will miss nothing by waiting till it is explained to them. None of this is to say that you need to even be particularly interested in the Christian overtones of the book- it remains as readable to someone who couldn’t be bothered with religion as it will be to someone who finds the subject fascinating. The author himself is a former fundamentalist who self-identifies as an atheist, and the novel never comes off as preachy even when it indulges in the religious beliefs of several of the central characters.
Though I imagine the book will find its widest audience among the more moderate protestant readers, it remains a worthwhile read for people who have no “dog in this fight”. The book honors the religious motivations of the central characters while keeping it clear that those religious motives are the clothing that dress the very human character of the protagonists. There is much philosophical meat to the book even absent the religious plot line, and people of any theological persuasion are going to find themselves challenging their ethical preconceptions and definitions of what defines good and evil. The book deserves a wider audience than it’s heavy subject matter will naturally afford it, and though you cannot help but be moved by the tragedy of it all the novel leaves the reader with some very provoking questions.
Graphic descriptions of religiously motivated child abuse will certainly make the novel too disturbing for some readers, and those readers who have experienced abuse- especially as children- may find it triggering. 13:24 explores the motivation and rationale for ritualized child abuse as well as the systematic ways our culture allows the practice to flourish unhindered by child welfare advocates. Though the story is a work of fiction, the damage the abuse causes the characters and the religious, biblically grounded principles that endorse it are very much real. The book at times will make you question if authoritarian conflation of punishment with justice and the substitution of fear for virtue is woven not just into the Old Testament but embodied by the central premise of the New Testament. Beyond the religious themes surrounding child abuse in 13:24, Hickmon raises questions about the developmental consequences of abuse and philosophical lessons that abused children internalize. Though the abuse described in the book is horrific and extreme- it is impossible to read through it without questioning if raising a hand to a child is ever truly right or productive. The contrast of the emotionally motivated brutality of Chris’ crime with the cold and detached brutality of Andrew and Allan ought to give pause to child abuse apologists who tout the value of spanking while calm.
There is a clear and definite message to this book. The criticisms leveled at the Christian doctrine of “spare the rod and spoil the child” and the complacency of mainstream Protestantism’s unwillingness to disavow itself from the brutal practice of child torture run throughout the novel. What stands out in this novel is the lengths to which Hickmon goes to make those criticisms the reader’s instead of his own. His commitment to presenting the story without passing judgement forces the reader to create their own impressions, opinions and ideas. I can’t help but mention the intellectual honesty of this method of storytelling in contrast to God’s Not Dead, the philosophically bankrupt film that was reviewed by Dan a while back. In 13:24, Christian characters are multifaceted and three dimensional.
In spite of a story that forces the reader to criticize Christian doctrine, both heroes and villains occupy the faith and both use their spiritual beliefs as motivations for their deeds. There is unspeakable evil done in the name of faith- but also genuine good. Even the most base of characters in the novel have moments of humanity and tenderness in spite of their heinous actions. Atheism or another faith is never introduced as a cure-all to the problems of the main characters, and when atheism is discussed it is not trivialized nor extolled. The non-Christian characters are portrayed as multi-dimensional people, some of whom are struggling with existential questions while others are confident and steadfast. By taking pains to create real characters with real virtues and faults, Hickmon creates a world that challenges the reader instead of pandering to their self-righteous cartoon fantasies. 13:24 shows that you can create an entertaining and engaging work of fiction that carries a social message without reducing yourself to synthetic and shallow stereotypes.
It is rare to find a book that can remain a page turner while socially provocative. It is rarer still to find one that is an accessible pop thriller. Hickmon has managed to write a first effort that walks a tightrope admirably between philosophical relevance and pop sensibility, between social conscience and engaging entertainment. The novel unravels through vividly descriptive prose that is beautiful when it is meant to be and disturbing when it needs to be. Better still, it presents a narrative to the reader that is sure to challenge their beliefs and keep them thinking long after they put the book down. Those who favor corporal punishment will hopefully see that though the scale and horror of the abuse in the novel is extreme, there are lessons and parallels that can be drawn to physical assault of children to any degree; there is no “reasonable” amount of fear you can inflict on your child that will give them the skills needed to be better adults. 13:24: A Story of Faith and Obsession deserves to be widely read and earnestly discussed.
This is a guest post by George Waye. Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.