A little more than a year ago, I talked about the enduring Father Brown mystery stories by G.K. Chesterton. I was delighted so many Criminal Element readers admitted that they, too, were lifelong fans.
For a while now I’ve been thinking about how fictional clergy/spiritual leaders couple their ecclesiastic training with their personal curiosity to solve the occasional crime that just happens to pop up.
When written, the Father Brown stories were contemporary but the first story, “The Blue Cross,” was published more than one hundred years ago, so now they have a great appeal to fans of historical mysteries. The same can be said for the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne. Set in the 7th century, most of the novels take place in Ireland, with Fidelma making some journeys to other parts of Western Europe. Tremayne uses Fidelma’s role as both a lawyer and a religious figure to contrast the relatively unrestricted position of women in Irish society with the status of women in other European societies of the time.
If you want a more modern religious sleuth, look no further than Brother Cadfael, the 12th century Benedictine monk residing in western England in the very popular series written by Ellis Peters, which is also a long running television series available on DVD. Cadfael felt the call to religious life in his forties. By that time he’d served as a soldier and a sailor, and participated in the Crusades. During his secular life he had relationships with several women including Miriam, a young Syrian woman, with whom he lived for many years in Antioch. In this clip from the television episode of The Virgin in the Ice, Brother Cadfael realizes that the young crusader he is speaking with is probably his son. It is a tender moment, filled with suspense.
If you get bored with the “good old days” in the British Isles, let me introduce you to Rabbi David Small, who first saw the light of day in the mystery novel Friday the Rabbi Slept Late written by Harry Kemelman and released the same year I graduated from high school, 1964. David Small is rabbi to a Conservative Jewish congregation in the small suburb of Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts. On the Friday in question, the dead body of a woman is discovered on the temple grounds. During the following thirty years, Kemelman produced a dozen Rabbi Small novels, and in each one the Rabbi brings his Talmudic wisdom to the crime solving process with great success.
As the Rabbi Small series was winding down in the early 1990s two new series featuring clergy-sleuths were snatching readers’ attention. First, in 1992, Irene Allen introduced us to Elizabeth Elliot, who is a lifelong Quaker and Clerk of the Meetinghouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Quaker Testimony, released in 1992, was followed by three more books which prove time and again that Elizabeth Elliot’s quiet ways, deep strength of will, and personal determination lead her to resolving murders placed in her path.
Then in 1994, the first Charlie Moon novel, The Shaman Sings, hit the shelves. Charlie is a rancher and tribal police officer on the Ute Reservation in Southern Colorado. His snappish but entertaining Aunt Daisy Perika, a tribal shaman, helps Charlie solve crimes with her prophetic dreams and supernatural intuition.
The author of the series, James Doss, died a few months ago and did not live to see the release of the seventeenth Charlie Moon mystery, The Old Gray Wolf, this past October. Vanessa Parker described this final Charlie Moon novel in a Fresh Meat post just a few weeks ago.
Okay. So by now you are wondering if all the contemporary Catholic sleuths have disappeared. It seemed for a while that every time we turned around some nun or priest was solving a murder or two or three. Never fear—I know a few we can talk about in a future post. You know who I mean: Father Koestler, Sister Mary Theresa Dempsey, Father Dowling, Sister Mary Helen, and my personal favorite, the inimitable Chicago Bulls fan, Bishop Blackie Ryan.
In the meantime, let’s talk about your favorite clergy sleuths and why you think that religion and crime fit so nicely together.
Terrie Farley Moran’s recent collection of short stories, THE AWARENESS and other deadly tales, is currently available in e-format for the Nook and the Kindle. Terrie blogs at Women of Mystery and her short story “Jake Says Hello” can be found in the December 2012 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
Read all posts by Terrie Farley Moran for Criminal Element.