Tag Archives: Ruth Rendell

Clerical Crime For Easter

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.Lincolnshire 149

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.York 003

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.


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A New Lease Of Death By Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell’s second Chief Inspector Wexford novel is set in her fictional Sussex town of Kingsmarkham in 1966. (Copyrighted in 1969 and first published in the U.K in 1971). It is in some ways the most unusual of her Wexford series and perhaps has more of the feel of her later Barbara Vine novels, in that it is concerned with psychology more than detection. It’s interesting to see that Ruth Rendell was experimenting fairly early in her writing career and possibly at that time considered taking the Wexford police procedurals in a different direction.

Although Wexford and his sidekick Inspector Mike Burden are interwoven in the plot, much of the narrative is seen through the eyes of a vicar. The quotations heading each chapter are taken from The Book Of Common Prayer. Sixteen years previously an elderly woman was bludgeoned to death by an employee who was subsequently hanged. The case was Wexford’s first murder inquiry when he was in charge.

The vicar, Henry Archery comes to Kingsmarkham to delve into the past in the hope of proving that Wexford made a mistake. Wexford is certain the verdict was correct but as Archery is an old friend of the Chief Constable, is tolerant of his tentative attempts to investigate. In the time-honoured fashion of ‘cold-case’ novels, probing the past leads to disturbing consequences in the present. The past is always with us was a favourite theme in Ruth Rendell’s work and it’s hard to think of any writer who handled it better.

The story expertly weaves between exploring what really happened on the day of the murder, the psychological effect on those involved and the greater understanding that ensues for Henry Archery. I thought Rendell’s writing about love – romantic and parental – was absolutely spot on. However much social mores change with the decades, human emotions haven’t yet done so and Rendell conveys them superbly.

It’s fascinating to see Wexford and Mike Burden in the early days of their relationship, before their close friendship has really begun. Burden is still calling Wexford ‘sir’ rather than Reg, when they are alone. You can’t yet imagine them having dinner together with their wives as they do in later novels. Wexford is slightly coarser in manner, wears heavy horn-rimmed glasses which I can’t recall being mentioned again and we don’t yet have the background of his wife Dora and daughters Sheila and Sylvia.

The setting, which I remember well as a child, seems as far off as another century. Rendell vividly describes a vanished Britain where people smoked Weights and kept budgerigars in cages, hotels held dinner dances and served tinned fruit salad. Rural Georgian Kingsmarkham has begun to be disfigured by ugly Sixties architecture (don’t get me started), including the new glass and concrete police station. Wexford’s office has new lemon venetian blinds and plastic seats to go with his own rosewood desk.

It is a hot July and Burden’s wife Jean is away with their children at the seaside. Ruth Rendell was not as famed for her sense of place as was her close friend P.D James but I think she should be. Her descriptions of Kingsmarkham – which is almost another character throughout the series – and the changing weather are superbly evoked.

A fine and intriguing novel.


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Ruth Rendell R.I.P

We are very sad to hear of the death of Ruth Rendell. Our thoughts and prayers are with her friends and family.

Together with the recent loss of her close friend P.D James, this feels like the end of a second golden age in the world of crime fiction.

Ian Rankin said of Ruth Rendell, ‘She is probably the greatest living crime writer in the world.’

Like millions of fans, we feel immensely grateful for the pleasure her books have given us and always will.

We shall not look upon her like again.


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