Easter seems an appropriate time to talk about an interesting sub-genre of detective fiction, the clerical mystery. From Cadfael to Sydney Chambers by way of Father Brown, a religious sleuth and setting has an enduring popularity. I’m always drawn to this background and two of my favourite non-crime novels are Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers, full of machinations among the clergy.
It has been said that Vicarage is one of the most popular key words that will sell book titles, particularly in the United States. Why is this so appealing? Perhaps because in detective fiction it’s an effective shorthand. There’s something about the word vicarage that conjures images of an English cosy mystery, summer fetes on the village green, eccentric characters for afternoon tea and the cake-stand laced with poison.
The Murder At The Vicarage (published in 1930) is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, featuring her classic setting of Miss Marple at home in St Mary Mead. Two more terrific novels where things are far from rosy at the vicarage are Sheila Radley’s A Talent For Destruction and Jill McGown’s Redemption (mentioned in our blog on Christmas Crime).
The Church of England provides a background with a hierarchy and some sort of modus operandi which should not be transgressed. Both give plenty of scope for worldly motives. We are introduced to a seemingly peaceful, ordered setting where the contrast of murder is all the more shocking.
The detective in a series of clerical mysteries is usually an amateur sleuth, with some interest in that religious world, though not necessarily a full member. Writers have come up with some ingenious backgrounds for their protagonists. Michael David Anthony’s superb mysteries are set among the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral where his detective Richard Harrison is Secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board. Kate Charles’s engaging Book of Psalms series, set in Norfolk, feature David Middleton-Brown, a solicitor who has a passion for churches. Kate Charles’s other series detective is a lady vicar Callie Anson who works in a London parish. D.M Greenwood’s sleuth is a likeable deaconess Theodora Braithwaite.
Where the detective is part of a religious institution they are of necessity something of a maverick who likes to get into the outside world. Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael is a herbalist who journeys around the Welsh Marches and Veronica Black’s Sister Joan runs errands from her convent on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.
Amateur sleuths invariably require a police ally – in Cadfael’s case in 12th century Shropshire, the Deputy Sheriff. Even in a contemporary setting though, ‘clerical’ detectives tend to solve the crime with their knowledge of human foibles rather than forensics. In a sense they are morality tales for our time, often posing questions about moral versus legal justice. The serpent slithers into Eden and at the end of the novel, order is restored. Though almost all detective fiction is concerned with good and evil, a background of clerical crime can be uniquely effective, cosy or sinister and often very English.
All the novelists mentioned are recommended. Notable examples of single novels with some sort of clerical setting include P.D James’s Death In Holy Orders, Colin Dexter’s Service Of All The Dead, Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, S.T Haymon’s Ritual Murder, Robert Richardson’s An Act Of Evil (first published as The Latimer Mercy) and Ann Granger’s Candle For A Corpse.
It’s never easy to pick favourites from a distinguished selection but my best-loved single ‘clerical mystery’ has to be The Reaper by Peter Lovesey. Told in first person by a vicar, it has a wonderful plot and characterisation, black humour, a cosy Wiltshire village setting and Lovesey’s inimitable flair. Favourite series is by Michael David Anthony which we’ll save for a future blog.