Catholic author of popular mystery novels has personal story of faith, grace

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Mystery novelist Susan Furlong holds a paperback copy of her book “Splintered Silence” from the book shelves of a department store in Champaign, Ill. (CNS photo/Susan Furlong Facebook page via The Catholic Post)

Tom Dermody
Catholic News Service

SAVOY, Ill. — “The source of justice is not vengeance but charity.”

This quote from St. Bridget of Sweden appears just before Chapter 1 of Susan Furlong’s latest mystery novel, “Shattered Justice.”

But you won’t find “Shattered Justice” in your local Catholic bookstore. The third and final installment of Furlong’s popular Bone Gap Travellers series, like its predecessors, is gritty crime fiction.

There are gruesome murders to solve, a protagonist who struggles with addictions as she confronts personal demons from her past, and examples of bigotry experienced by an ethnic group in rural Tennessee.

So let the debate begin on whether Susan Furlong-Bolliger — a member of St. Thomas Parish in Philo, Illinois — is a Catholic who is a writer or a Catholic writer. But spend any time with this delightful mother of four and you’ll realize the answer is no mystery.

Furlong is both. She is a faith-filled Catholic and a gifted storyteller.

“Being Catholic is all that I am,” she told The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria, in a recent interview at her family’s suburban home just south of Champaign, Illinois. “Writing is what I do.”

Quoting the Benedictine motto of “Pray and Work,” Furlong said that if one prays while working, faith will come through “whether the world recognizes it or not.”

For business reasons, it was good that neither Furlong’s New York-based publisher, Kensington Books, nor her agent recognized the author’s personal faith reflected on the pages of the Bone Gap Travellers series. Publishing is a tough, market-driven business and Furlong was writing for the widest possible audience.

Yes, the ethnic group depicted — real life itinerant workers known as Irish Travellers — are a predominantly Catholic people. And the sacrament of confession is a key part of the first book’s storyline.

Her agent did, however, question Furlong about the saint quotes that open each book, eventually concluding they fit well with the titles and stories.

For example, “Splintered Silence” — the first in the series — begins with the words of Abbot Finton of Ireland: “May you have the commitment to know what has hurt you, to allow it to come closer to you and, in the end, to become one with you.”

Susan chose a succinct quote from St. Teresa of Avila — “Truth suffers, but never dies” — to open “Fractured Truth.”

“A book doesn’t have to have a priest in it to be Catholic,” she says, though her series has one in young Father Colm, a key recurring role. “A poem doesn’t have to speak about Jesus to be Catholic.”

Similarly, Furlong knows from experience that God is present and can bring good even from tragic events.

Born in Michigan and raised mostly in North Dakota, Furlong, her husband, Nyle Bolliger — a computer operations engineer at the University of Illinois — and their children were living in Homer, Illinois, in late 2013 when a tornado roared through Champaign and Vermilion counties.

The family’s home received only minor damage, but the nearby town of Gifford was devastated.

Among those who came to assist in rebuilding efforts was a group of Irish Travellers from Tennessee. Furlong became fascinated by the tightknit group’s nomadic lifestyle and esoteric customs.

Fresh off a successful series of light, “cozy” mysteries based among the peach orchards of Georgia and bearing clever titles such as “Peaches and Scream” and “War and Peach,” Furlong researched the Irish Travellers and made the group the focus of a new, deeper and more complex storyline.

Her proposal was accepted and she signed a major publishing contract. There would be a series of three books in hardcover, audio and paperback printed in the tens of thousands and distributed through national bookstores and major retailers.

The series would eventually be reviewed in The New York Times and praised on its pages as “a real find.”

Furlong’s exuberance lasted but two weeks. In the summer of 2016, her family’s story took a devastating turn when their son, Patrick, died at age 21.

Furlong carries the grief daily. The dedication page of “Shattered Justice” reads: “Patrick, it’s been two years and three more books, yet in my heart, time stands still.”

Shocked and bereft, Furlong was at a crossroads in her life, profession — and faith.

“There’s something about suffering,” she said. “It’s defining.” It also is understandable, she said, that grief and anger can make one turn away from God.

Furlong, however, chose to draw nearer to Christ through adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and a more intimate relationship with his mother. She used the imagination she has honed since early childhood to put herself with Mary at the foot of Jesus’ cross.

“Since I lost a son, that would be a natural connection,” she explained. “I thought perhaps Mary could understand. It helped me not to feel so isolated. I could console her, and she could console me.”

The mysteries of the rosary have become a part of the daily life of the mystery writer. Furlong consecrated her life to Mary after attending a series of classes at the Catholic high school in Champaign, St. Thomas More, where Patrick and daughters Quinn and Regan have attended, as will daughter Fiona next year.

Seeking ways to share her faith, Furlong registered with Marian societies including the Association of Mary, Queen of All Hearts and the Militia of the Immaculata. She also made a Cursillo retreat.

Feeling drawn to prison ministry, Furlong began writing “faith letters” to incarcerated men and women through a program overseen by the Militia of the Immaculata at Marytown. She still pens one or two letters a week.

While the program maintains anonymity, Furlong says a rapport can develop between the correspondents, making it difficult for both when the one in prison gains release and the contact is necessarily broken.

“Many of these men are very well formed,” Furlong said in the interview. “They read Scripture continuously. I think they have formed me more than vice versa, because they challenge me.”

In addition, through Cursillo’s prison ministry, Furlong has been trained to visit the Danville Correctional Facility and be part of teams that conduct weekend Bible studies and yearly retreats.

Professionally, her son’s death changed Furlong’s approach to writing. She channeled her raw emotions into the Bone Gap Travellers series, which concludes with the release of “Shattered Justice” in paperback this November.

“It seemed like all I did was go to Mass and write the first couple of years after he died,” she said. “I wrote the three books very quickly in succession.”

She is grateful for the support of family, friends and her entire church family during that difficult time.

“What a great thing to have a church family when you have something happen,” she said, adding “and we all do.”

Dermody is editor of The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria.

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