North by Northwest is considered by critics and fans alike to be one of the greatest films ever made. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, the story’s suspense and appeal derive from the unlikely hero — the suave Cary Grant playing a shallow and comfortable advertising executive — being mistaken for someone else and having his entire world collapse around him. Grant has no one to trust and no one to turn to. The story plays upon a primal human fear first expressed in the story of Job: losing everything that one has and being completely deserted by family and friends.
The hero in Trial by Ordeal, Kevin Hastings, is similar to Grant’s character in North by Northwest. However, instead of the savvy, street-smart character that Grant played, Hastings is a study in naiveté. Stung by a romantic breakup and setbacks at gaining full professor status teaching history at a small college, Hastings sets out to make himself wealthy by investing in real estate, helped by his Uncle Mort, who turns out not to be so helpful after all. The piece of property that he purchases — an old church in downtown Chicago — changes from a dream to a nightmare when Hastings unwittingly sells it to a Chicago mob boss and soon discovers that he cannot deliver on the deal.
Hastings’ world collapses around him. He is betrayed by his attorney, loses his job teaching history, shunned by his friends, and becomes a target of the mob family. Hastings turns to a new attorney, and that’s where his trial by ordeal begins. From the book:
The trial by ordeal was employed by medieval ecclesiastical courts in Europe. A person on trial for a crime had the option to ask for a trial by ordeal.
He would be taken to a cathedral, and in front of witnesses and judges, he would lay hold of a hot iron. Not just hot — but red-hot, having lain in a blacksmith’s cauldron for hours. … The accused was required to walk (not run) for a full nine yards with the glowing bar grasped firmly in his hand. His hand would then be wrapped with bandages. The witnesses and judges would return three days later to inspect the wounds. If the hand was completely healed (a near miracle) he would be declared innocent. … Which strikes me as somewhat familiar — pretty much like a typical day in Cook County Circuit Court. … I was about to to commence my own legal ordeal, and [it] would resemble that of a man choosing to carry molten irons…for the viewing pleasure of his sadistic opponents.
Trial by Ordeal is a bit cumbersome for the first 20 pages or so — Parshall’s writing is a blend of the staccato marks of Ernest Hemingway and the descriptive skills of Mickey Spillane — but it quickly turns into an action-packed, crime thriller that even John Grisham would be proud of. Writer Craig Parshall, an attorney himself, masterfully fleshes out Hastings as a sympathetic character that most people can identify with. The reader is drawn into Hastings’ shrinking world as he is pursued by the mob, left swinging in the wind by friends and family, and tortured by attorneys and the legal system. One is left wondering who is worse — the mob or the American legal system. The reader is reminded of C.S. Lewis’s famous quote:
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.
Finally, Hastings is forced to take refuge at a local mission where he encounters true friends and the truest friend of all: God. Parshall does a good job at keeping the conversion process of Hastings from being overly heavy-handed. Trial by Ordeal can be enjoyed by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Craig Parshall is a successful lawyer who specializes in religious freedom and civil liberties. He has publicly been somewhat overshadowed by his more famous wife, Christian talk-show host and activist Janet Parshall, but Craig Parshall’s books bring him into “his own write,” to quote John Lennon.
I give the book a rating of 5 out of 5 because of Parshall’s skills in playing on everyone’s greatest fear in such a compelling fashion.