Thursday, June 24, 2010

Chico visitor reopens divisive murder case


Terry Phillips reported for CBS and other news networks, and, according to his Web site, "Phillips was one of the first American reporters to live and work in Armenia following the 1988 earthquake." Of Greek and Armenian heritage, Phillips recalls hearing in his childhood about the assassination of the Armenian Archbishop, Ghevont Tourian, in a New York church on Sunday morning, December 24, 1933.

Nine men were eventually arrested and charged in the slaying, including Armenian immigrant Mateos Leylegian, a grocery-store owner on West Forty-ninth Street in Depression-era New York. But why would Armenians kill the representative of the Armenian Church? Or, for that matter, did they?

The questions lead to an intriguing story. "Murder at the Altar: A Historical Novel" ($14.95 in paperback, available from Lyon Books in Chico or online at interweaves the lives of historical figures with the fictional Tom Peterson, once a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune. Alternating between Peterson's digging through archival material in the present (1975) with the events unfolding in 1933, the novel proposes a different solution to the crime than that contained in the official record.

In a letter, Phillips writes me that "this horrific killing was prompted by a dispute over Armenia's attempts at achieving independence from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Their fight led to a deep split among that ethnic group which persists today. Despite its somewhat arcane focus," he adds, the novel "is really a universal story about people facing irreconcilable differences and resorting to violence."

Phillips visited Chico recently and is scheduled to be interviewed by Nancy Wiegman, the host of Nancy's Bookshelf, tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. (note the new day and time) on KCHO (Northstate Public Radio), 91.7 FM.

The centerpiece of the book, the trial proceeding, is based on actual transcripts. Phillips provides a helpful list of the dozens of personages introduced in his story and gives it verisimilitude with the use of historical photographs, including those of the Archbishop and the accused assailants.

Yet the novel is less about solving a long-ago murder than capturing in historical time the complexities of human life and "answers" that are far from clear. In this terrible act of violence, for things done and not done, "we are all responsible."

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