As it’s nearly Easter, this seems an appropriate time to look at an engaging sub-genre of detective fiction, the clerical mystery. From Cadfael to Sydney Chambers by way of Father Brown, a religious setting – and possibly sleuth – has an enduring popularity. I’m always drawn to this background, one of my favourite non-crime novelists is Anthony Trollope, famed for his setting of the cathedral close at Barchester.
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 that conjures images of a traditional English mystery; summer fêtes on the village green, eccentric characters gossiping over the tea-cups, arsenic in the potted meat sandwiches or cyanide on the cake-stand.
The Murder At The Vicarage (published in 1930) is a prime example. One of Agatha Christie’s best-known novels, featuring Miss Marple at home in St Mary Mead, where a caller is murdered in the vicar’s study. Two more wonderful novels where things are far from rosy at the vicarage are Sheila Radley’s A Talent For Destruction (1982) and Redemption (1988) by the much-missed Jill McGown.
Redemption, which takes place largely on Christmas Eve, was reissued in 2015 with a snow-scene cover – presumably to catch the fashionable market for Christmas crime novels. The publishers chose to use its American alternative title Murder At The Old Vicarage. Nice enough but I prefer Jill McGown’s own choice with its deeper symbolism.
Most sleuths in clerical mysteries tend to be Anglican, though Cadfael and Father Brown are Roman Catholic. The Church of England provides a background with a hierarchy and code of conduct which should not be transgressed. Both give plenty of scope for worldly motives. The rivalries and machinations of a cathedral close are not so different from those found in running a big business.
The Church also introduces a seemingly peaceful, ordered setting where the intrusion of murder is all the more shocking. This is heightened if the suspects are a closed circle among the clergy and lay-helpers.
The detective is usually an amateur sleuth, with some connection to that religious world, though not necessarily a full member. Writers have come up with some ingenious backgrounds for their protagonists. My absolute favourite series is the late Michael David Anthony’s superb mysteries, set around Canterbury Cathedral. His sleuth Colonel Richard Harrison is Secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board.
Kate Charles’s Book of Psalms series, features David Middleton-Brown, a Norfolk solicitor who is an expert on church architecture. D.M Greenwood’s sleuth is a deaconess, Theodora Braithwaite. Written in the 1990s before the ordination of women in the Church of England, Theodora was a semi-outsider, allowed so far but unable to be a priest. Kate Charles’s later, Callie Anson series features a woman vicar.
Where the detective is part of an enclosed religious order, they are of necessity, a maverick who likes to visit 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. Martha Ockley’s series features Faith Morgan, a former police detective who becomes a vicar. (Martha Ockley is a pen-name of Rebecca Jenkins, daughter of a previous Bishop of Durham).
Even with police assistance, ‘clerical’ detectives tend to solve the crime with their knowledge of human foibles rather than forensics. In a sense these 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. Good people are left to pick up the pieces. Though all detective fiction is concerned with good and evil, a background of clerical crime can be uniquely effective.
Finally, a clerical mystery has a head-start when it comes to an evocative sense of place. The Norfolk Fenland village setting of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors is probably one of the atmospheric novels of the Golden Age. From a peaceful village church to the edgy central London of Alison Joseph’s Sister Agnes or even the cathedral precincts of Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a religious setting lends itself to be charming or shadowy, cosy or sinister, ancient or modern.
Here are a few detective/mystery novels I enjoyed, which happen to have some sort of clerical setting:
Catherine Aird The Religious Body (convent)
Alice Boatwright Under An English Heaven (country church)
Colin Dexter Service Of All The Dead (Oxford church)
Ann Granger Candle For A Corpse (country church)
S.T. Haymon Ritual Murder (cathedral)
P.D. James Death In Holy Orders (Anglican college)
Charles Palliser The Unburied (cathedral)
Ruth Rendell No Man’s Nightingale (Kingsmarkham church)
Robert Richardson An Act Of Evil (first published as The Latimer Mercy) (cathedral)
My favourite clerical stand-alone is Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper.