You'll read "The Ambition" trying to figure out which real-life characters the book's key players are based on.
Is power-hungry pastor Eric Stone really Willow Creek Senior Pastor Bill Hybels? Does corrupt judge Reese McKelvie have a doppelganger at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building? Is swashbuckling investigative reporter Garry Strider actually "The Ambition" author Lee Strobel himself?
Strobel is no stranger to tackling sacred cows. He made a name for himself, after all, investigating Jesus Christ. And the atheist reporter turned Christ apologist, teaching pastor and author does have the kind of multifarious background that offers insight into the many worlds his story inhabits — a suburban megachurch, a cutthroat newsroom, a judicial system drowning in both mob trials and mob ties.
But Strobel demurs. "The creation of my imagination," is how he describes the characters and stories in his first work of fiction. (He has written more than 20 nonfiction books, all from Christian publisher Zondervan, including New York Times best-seller "The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.")
"I try to take the reader behind the curtain, similar to the Arthur Hailey books — 'Airport,' 'Hotel' — where you lift the veil a little bit and see what happens behind the scenes," Strobel said over coffee during a recent Chicago visit. (He and his wife now live in Colorado.) "But the story is pure fiction."
Set in Chicago, the story moves at a breakneck pace. Defense lawyer Tom O'Sullivan, burdened by both a gambling addiction and his dead father's tarnished reputation, bribes a Cook County judge on behalf of the mob, to whom O'Sullivan owes $40,000. Out in the suburbs, meanwhile, sits Diamond Point Fellowship, a megachurch whose goings-on have attracted the cynical eye of Chicago Examiner reporter Garry Strider and whose pastor covets a soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat. Eyeing the same vacant seat? The corrupt judge.
A fan of authors such as Scott Turow and Michael Connelly, John Grisham and Christopher Reich, Strobel was determined to nail the crime thriller oeuvre his first time out of the gate.
"The hardest part for me was the plot," says Strobel, who worked at the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1981. "The dialogue came naturally; I'm a very verbal person. But intricately corralling all those stories together and pacing the book — that was a challenge for me."
And unlike his experience writing nonfiction, Strobel found himself being led by "The Ambition's" characters.
"They took me on a journey," he said. "After my editor read the book for the first time, he said, 'I was shocked! I couldn't believe you killed that character!' I said, 'I couldn't believe it either.' I used to come out of my office after writing for hours and say to my wife, 'Honey, I can't believe what just happened!'"
"The Ambition," though, is not a total departure from Strobel's nonfiction. Coursing below its dark, seedy world of corruption and power-brokering is a distinctly Christian message. Through Strider's exchanges with his newly devout girlfriend, Gina; through the miracles that unfold within Diamond Point's sanctuary; through Pastor Snow's conversations with his church elders, Strobel weaves a tale of Christian faith and redemption.
Consider this exchange between Strider and Art Bullock, an associate pastor at Diamond Point.
Strider: "When I think of a church, I picture a steeple and pews and an altar and priests in robes. But you've got no crosses on the walls, no altar at the front, no choir, no robes, no organ, no hymnals, no pews — just plush theater seats, a stage, a rock band and a preacher in casual clothes."
Bullock: "We designed it that way for a purpose. We're trying to create a comfortable environment for people to investigate the Christian faith."
Strider: "Why no crosses?"
Bullock: "We avoid a lot of symbolism because people can read too much into it based on their background. A cross represents one thing to a Christian, another thing to a Muslim, another thing to a Jewish person. We don't want to put them off by displaying a cross before we have a chance to teach them the real message of Christ. Besides, if we were really going to symbolize Jesus, we'd also need a loaf of bread, because he's the bread of life; and a candle, because he's the light of the world; and a shepherd's staff, because he's the great shepherd; and an empty tomb, because he's resurrected, and on and on. That's just too much."
A criticism often lobbed at Barrington's Willow Creek — where Strobel was a pastor — is that no crosses appear on its walls.
Is Strobel using "The Ambition" to shoot down his skeptics? Possibly.
Does he tell a heck of a story in the process?
Lee Strobel's other works
Lee Strobel first broke onto the literary scene with 1998's "The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus." Some of his other works, all from Christian publisher Zondervan, include:
•"The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ"
•"The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God"
•"The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity"
•"God's Outrageous Claims: Discover What They Mean for You"
•"The Unexpected Adventure: Taking Everyday Risks to Talk with People about Jesus" (co-written with Mark Mittelberg)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun