Review: William Heffernan's 'Scientology Murders' an entertaining Tampa Bay area mystery

Times photo illustration
Times photo illustration
Published Oct. 27, 2017

If you're a Tampa Bay area mystery fan with a taste for ripped-from-the-headlines plots, William Heffernan's new novel The Scientology Murders will ring your bell.

Heffernan is a former investigative reporter who lives in the bay area and has published 19 novels, including Edgar Award winner Tarnished Blue. The Scientology Murders is the second in his series about Pinellas County Sheriff's Office investigator Harry Doyle, whose nickname is the Dead Detective.

It's not because he investigates homicides, but because of the defining event of his childhood: When he was 10, his mentally ill mother drugged him and his little brother and left them in the garage with her car's engine running while she went to church. She meant to send them to Jesus. The younger boy died, but Harry, despite being dead when police found them, was revived.

As this novel opens, Harry is dealing with his mother's release from prison after 20 years, despite his efforts to fight her parole. He's sure she's still a danger to him, and when she shows up carrying a knife at the Clearwater marina where he lives aboard a sailboat, despite his restraining order against her, it looks like he's right.

But that's not the only family crisis he's dealing with. His adoptive father, retired Clearwater police officer Jocko Doyle, has been shot while trying to rescue a drowning young woman at another marina.

Jocko is badly wounded but survives. He and his wife, Maria, took Harry in and raised him lovingly, and the detective is determined to help find the attacker.

He'll have to help unofficially, of course, but the Clearwater detective assigned to the case, Max Abrams, is glad to have Harry's help. He has heard about the peculiar talent that is also part of that Dead Detective nickname: Since his return from the other side, Harry can sometimes hear whispered words when he is near a recently murdered victim's body, words that seem related to how they died. Not admissible evidence, but sometimes those words or phrases can point him toward their killers.

The drowned young woman was Mary Kate O'Connell, the daughter of one of Jocko's buddies. At her father's request, Jocko had been trying to find her to talk her into reuniting with her family after she cut them off because she had joined the Church of Scientology. Harry, like pretty much everyone else in the area, is well aware of the powerful organization's influence and secretive nature, as well as the iron grip it tends to keep on its members.

Soon he, Abrams and Harry's partner, Vicky Stanopolis, are on the trail of a Scientology member named Tony Rolf, who works for the church's office of discipline, keeping errant members in line. As more people die, it becomes apparent that Rolf's enforcement methods have crossed a lethal line.

When he's not detecting, Harry finds a new distraction at his home marina: a seductive redhead named Meg Adams, who has berthed her boat just down from his and proves to be a very friendly neighbor.

Heffernan's style harks back to traditional hard-boiled mysteries, set in a world where men are tough and women are curvy, and often the twain shall meet. The Scientology Murders is less mystery — the reader soon knows Rolf is a serial killer — than chase story, as Harry and his sidekicks pursue the killer.

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The book offers plenty of local flavor as its characters cruise the Gulf of Mexico, dine at the Columbia in Tampa and Casa Tina in Dunedin, and visit landmarks like Tarpon Springs' Sponge Docks and, of course, the Scientology headquarters in downtown Clearwater, which the detectives visit to interview Rolf's well-dressed, sinister boss.

The chase takes a detour from Florida all the way to Alaska for its fast-paced final chapters. The Scientology Murders isn't likely to make the church's recommended reading list, but for mystery fans it's an entertaining tale.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.