Crime Fiction Alphabet: C is for Clergy

As I picked up my first book for the East European Reading Challenge, which features a sleuthing nun in 19th century Russia, it struck me that religious folk of one sort or another seem to pop up rather a lot in crime fiction. This is probably understandable to an extent when it comes to historical times as people in clerical roles were often the ones with greater education and more resources than the average person would have had. I’m not sure what explains the attraction of clerical sleuths in more modern crime fiction stories. What do you think?

Historical clergy/sleuths

Sir Derek Jacobi as Cadfael

One of the most well-known of the clerical sleuths from history is Ellis Peters’ creation Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine monk and herbalist living in Shrewsbury Abbey during the first half of the 12th Century. Having come to the clerical life in his 40′s and after periods as a soldier and sailor, Cadfael is a little more worldly-wise than his fellow monks however there is a strong element of faith in the character too, demonstrated through his many acts of help and kindness provided to those in need. I must admit I’ve only read one of the books (so far), A Morbid Taste for Bones, but was introduced to the character through watching Derek Jacobi in the title role of the television series which is one of those rare ones that has done justice to its source material.

The novel that prompted this post is Boris Akunin‘s Sister Palagia and the White Bulldog which is the first of 3 novels to feature the nun. In Russia during the final years of the 19th Century the young nun is sent to investigate the poisoning of a rare bulldog in a remote part of the country. She soon comes to believe that dogs are being poisoned as a means of killing their devoted owner. I am about a third of the way through the novel so far and religion is certainly playing its part in the story but I’m not sure how much impact overall it will have.

Peter Tremayne has a long running series featuring a nun and legal advocate in 7th Century Ireland which has proved so popular it has inspired the creation of the International Sister Fidelma Society. I haven’t read any of this series yet but do have A Prayer for the Damned in my TBR pile which looks to be from late in the series as Fidelma’s plans to marry are thrown into disarray when an unpopular Abbott who is demanding that she uphold her religious vows is murdered.

Caroline Roe has a series set in the 1350′s in Spain which features a blind physician, Isaac of Girona, who investigate crimes often with the assistance of the city’s Bishop. In Remedy for Treason the city is in the grip of the plague when a nun is found dead at the public baths in strange circumstances and the Bishop calls on Isaac to investigate.

Modern clergy/sleuths

The first of the modern clerical sleuths is probably G K Chesterton‘s Father Brown who first appeared in 1911′s The Innocence of Father Brown, a collection of 12 short stories featuring the priest who Chesterton apparently based in part on the priest who tutored him through his own conversion to Catholicism. Father Brown is an intuitive detective who uses the information he has gained from observing people and hearing their inner most secrets during confession to deduce the culprits of the crimes he investigates. and there is often a real spiritual element to his denouements.

Although he is known for historical fiction standalones too, it is Phil Rickman’s modern series that features a cleric. Merrily Watkins  is an Anglican priest and single mum living near the Welsh border in England. She has featured in 11 novels so far, starting with 1998′s The Wine of Angels in which she takes up her new role as the vicar of Ledwardine and finds pagan influences in the town and a possible haunting by a 17th century murder victim. On the subject of writing a clerical mystery Rickman says (from his website)

“If you’d told me twelve years ago that I’d be writing a whole series of books about a woman priest, I might have thrown you out and barred all the doors…It took a long time for me to accept that if I was looking for a world of uncertainty, insecurity and paranoia, a woman priest was exactly what I needed. Especially one appointed to the post of Deliverance Consultant – or, as it used to be known, Diocesan Exorcist”.

Clare Ferguson is the newly ordained episcopal priest of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in upstate New York in Julia Spencer-Flemming‘s debut novel In the Bleak Midwinter. She discovers a baby on the back steps of the church and is soon investigating a murder which seems to be associated with the abandoned baby. Clare is somewhat unorthodox in her approach to religion but her faith is tested when she falls in love with the married chief of police.

There are several religious issues explored alongside the investigation of a murder in Joseph Telushkin‘s The Unorthodox Murder of Rabbi Wahl. A young rabbi, Daniel Winter is provided information which is not given to police and so he runs a parallel investigation to the official one. This idea of people telling their religious leaders things they might tell police is a common one in these clerical mysteries.

Being a prison chaplain gives John Jordan an interesting perspective on crime. In 2004′s Blood of the Lamb by Michael Lister he investigates the murder of the daughter of an ex-con turned TV evangelist who is giving a service in the Florida prison in which Jordan works when his daughter is murdered there. The story causes Jordan to question his own faith and beliefs as well as troubling his newly acquired sobriety.

Irene Allen‘s short series of books features Elizabeth Elliot who is Clerk of a Quaker Meeting House in Massachusetts. In the second novel of the series, Quaker Witness, Elliot becomes involved with the case of a young college student who has filed a complaint of sexual harassment against her professor and then becomes a suspect when he is murdered.

Do you like reading crime fiction featuring a member of the clergy? Do you know of any other clerical crime fiction I should be checking out? It would be especially interesting to find some sleuths of different faiths other than the predominantly Christian ones I have read about.

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Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting the crime fiction alphabet meme which requires the posting of an article relating to the letter of the week (a book title, an author name, a subject…) Do join in the fun by reading the posts and/or contributing one of your own. You don’t have to write every week.

This is the second round of the meme which was first run from late 2009 to early 2010. My contributions that time were discussions of books with one word titles.

11 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Alphabet: C is for Clergy

  1. Gee thanks Kerrie I hadn’t seen that site – 210 clerical sleuths! I’d better get reading – there do seem to be some non-Christian ones so I’ll start with those

  2. This is a category of crime fiction in which I have not delved, except for one book by Julia Spencer-Fleming, which was okay. It would not be my category of choice, but looking over this list, if this were a way for me to learn some history, say, of 7th century Ireland, I might check into the relevant series. I don’t mind political preaching, if it fits into the story, but religious would get to me if it’s too much.
    However, the Telushkin series might be interesting.
    This post does entice me to want to see the Derek Jacobi series, which I had not known about.

  3. Kathy none of the books in this category that I have talked about here have any preaching – I ditch the ones that do very quickly. I happen to like learning about different beliefs and customs though so I don’t mind open discussion (as in the Telushkin book).

    I highly recommend the Cadfael TV series – it is all available on DVD so should be at your library or wherever you can get hold of DVDs. I have been watching it again recently and they really are quite brilliant.

  4. Bernadette – Fantastic post! I think one reason that clergy so often get involved in crime detection is that people look up to them and trust them. Plus there’s the matter of people confiding in their clergy. To me, the skills you need to work with people as a member of the clergy have things in common with the skills you need to work with people as you investigate a case.

    You have a most impressive list here, too! Have you heard of Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small novels? Friday the Rabbi Slept Late is one. So is Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry.

  5. Amazing that there is a site that lists clergy crime fiction! There has to be a list for every micro sub-genre!

    There is Priest of Evil by Matti Jonesuu, which I haven’t read but Karen has, and has reviewed for Euro Crime. She didn’t recommend it so I read another by the same author which did not feature clergy. Then there is Susan Hill – her protag is not a member of the clergy but her Simon Serralier series is quite heavily influenced by religion in that SS lives in a catherdal close with other clergy and gets involved in them and their moral and crime dilemmas in one way or another in most of the books (particularly the most recent two). The author is interested in modern attitudes to the clergy and faith, I think.

    I have an idea that one of Eliz George’s featured a priest – was it Missing Joseph?

    I feel sure I have read other clergy-oriented novels but none come to mind just now. Good point in your post about other religions – I hope you come up with some.

  6. Well, I rushed to go to my library site last night, and they do have the Derek Jacobi series, so I put the first dvd on hold and will try it out. (They have about 13 episodes on dvd, as well as many fascinating movies starring Jacobi.)
    I don’t mind open discussion either, especially if there’s humor, as in one of Laura Lippman’s books, where Tess Monaghan discusses religion with a religious Jewish character in the course of an investigation. It had me laughing.
    I also looked up the Sister Fidelma series, as there is a society about her character, who is a nun/lawyer–? Huh? Anyway, it is written by a Celtic scholar, so I might learn something about 7th century Ireland…could be fun.

  7. As you know, I intended to write a series featuring vicars last year, but I gave it up when I saw how much time it would take me to reread & translate my material.

    A vicar who is not a sleuth, but nevertheless an interesting figure, is Reverend Venables in Dorothy Sayers´ The Nine Taylors- a character that develops quite a bit during the story.

    But I have also met several vicars built on one of two clichés: either the vicar is a stuttering fuddy-duddy, or he is a nasty creep full of repressed sex. I won´t recommend any of these.

  8. So many clerical mysteries, and I have never read a single one. Historical mysteries have grown on me over the years, and I had thought about trying Ellis Peters. Boris Akunin appeals too, but there was something in a blurb that made me think I should read Crime & Punishment first.

  9. Also, it’s not a clerical mystery, but there is a book with Jewish themes called “Murder is No Mitzvah (Mitzvah means “good deed”), which is full of short stories, and some of them are about rabbis. I just read it, and laughed through much of the book. Maybe one has to be familiar with the culture, religion and humor, which is a certain type of humor. Being that I’m from a bi-cultural family–Eastern European Jewish and Irish–I try to follow books fairly from each side, but I need more Irish culture actually.

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