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Putting a Christian Spin on Gritty Crime Novels

James Scott Bell has written himself into an unusual niche that traditionally has been reserved for the likes of Raymond Chandler.

November 23, 2002|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

As a writer of Christian thrillers, James Scott Bell's work is "about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food," to quote one of his favorite authors, Raymond Chandler.

Christian, suspense, hard-boiled, page-turner and novel are words that usually don't keep company in sentences. But Bell, a 48-year-old former trial attorney, has written himself into that very niche with nine books since his debut novel in 1995. He's part of a literary pack of new Christian authors who've helped double the sales for faith-based fiction in the last seven years.

The Woodland Hills resident's seven-year rise to the elite of Christian fiction writers shows both his talent and the thin competition in his genre. His first novel, "The Darwin Conspiracy," landed him a five-book contract "for more money than I ever imagined I could make writing fiction."

"I never expected to make a lot of money," he said. "I thought, maybe I have a future in this."

Since 1995, the number of novels classified by publishers as Christian has grown from 500 to 1,800, many now published by divisions of major houses such as Viking, Warner and Doubleday. At Valley Book and Bible in Canoga Park, the fiction selection in recent years has gone from 10 titles to 12 feet of bookshelf space, with Bell being one of the more popular authors.

"I love his books," said Heather Wilke, the store manager. "There's depth, creativity, invention, and it's not always predictable."

Two years ago, Bell was named Christian suspense writer of the year for his novel "Final Witness." He was recently tapped as a fiction columnist for Writer's Digest. His two-book-a-year pace allows him to be under contract with two publishers, one for historical thrillers set in the early 1900s in Los Angeles.

He's been called the John Grisham of Christian suspense, but he prefers to be measured against favorites such as Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the creator of private investigator Sam Spade.

Bell's latest novel, the high-concept "Deadlock," was released last month. The premise: What happens when a liberal U.S. Supreme Court justice, the swing vote on a split court, has a religious conversion that forces her to rethink her previous positions, including her view on abortion.

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Secular Reviews

The book has prompted a few mostly complimentary reviews in secular magazines, like this one in the Library Journal: "Bell, a lawyer known for solid Christian legal thrillers ('Final Witness'), offers a thought-provoking fantasy about what might happen if a staunch liberal becomes a conservative Christian, although he does slip into didactic overload with his strong anti-abortion rhetoric.

Publishers Weekly paid this compliment that he savored: "Laudably, most characters are multidimensional."

Bell says it's part of his being a Christian to feel sympathy for all his characters, even the villains.

"If we can understand and know what their motivations are, maybe we can even have a little sympathy for them," he said.

Bell's path to becoming a popular Christian author began as a teenager while watching a Billy Graham crusade on television. Though his parents were not churchgoers, he got on his knees before the TV and converted to Christianity.

"It was an incredible feeling of warmth that washed over me, and I felt I was connected to something higher than just this world," he said.

Before writing his first novel, Bell, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and USC law school, spent 19 years as an actor in theater and commercials in New York, a litigator and a screenwriter (he says he had two of his works optioned but not produced).

But for the committed Christian who has taught Sunday school for 17 years, a faith-based novel was the only way he could write freely about the issues that intrigued him most: abortion, evolution, biotechnology and faith under pressure.

"The most important thing for me is to write about the big philosophical issues without having to restrain myself in any way," said Bell, a married father of two who also continues to publish legal reference books on search and seizure law.

His daily routine is to write about 1,200 words of fiction in the morning and work on his legal publishing business in the afternoon. He also spends a fair amount of time encouraging other young writers, Christian or otherwise, by speaking at conferences and offering writing tips on his Web site (www.jamesscott bell.com).

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Closing the Gap

There's still a sizable literary gap between the top evangelical novelists and their secular counterparts, but the space has closed dramatically in the last five years. Bell says one challenge is to write fiction that's theologically important but leaves the sermons for the pulpit.

"To tell a good story and to weave in the spirit themes is difficult unless you have compelling characters and follow them," he said. "I don't want to be preachy."

Bell says his aim is to come up with a page-turning concept and then let characters, including strong Christian protagonists and others searching for spiritual meaning, tell the story.

"My goal is to write books that aren't less in quality than the best you'd find on the secular shelves," he said. "It's no longer acceptable for us to just write a thinly veiled sermon and have it published."

Despite his current success, Bell says he'll remain with Christian publishers, not feeling the need to prove himself in the mainstream literary world.

"I'd had some offers to try that," he said. "But my feeling is that God has given me this avenue and I'm going to do it the best I can. If something happens to cross over, like the 'Left Behind' series did, then fine."

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