The Mystery of the Clerical Detective

It's no mystery why priests and religious are natural choices to be the protagonists of mystery fiction.

What is a mystery, after all, but the story of a confrontation between good and evil, an attempt to restore justice to creation, and to shed light into the darkness? This is what ministry is about, as well, so calling the ordained or vowed forces of good to the scene of a crime makes perfect literary sense.

When we consider the question of clerics and mysteries, the first figure most of us think of is G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown. The first Father Brown story was published in 1910 in the Saturday Evening Post, years before Chesterton had even converted to Roman Catholicism. Forty-eight Father Brown stories were published before Chesterton's death, and for many, the unassuming Catholic priest, who solved mysteries through close observation and intuition, remains the model clerical detective, unmatched by any subsequent efforts by other authors.

Not that these authors haven't tried. Their success depends on the same factors by which we judge any piece of fiction in general and mystery fiction in particular: is the writing evocative or flat and cliched? Are the characters three-dimensional, or are they just types who do little but lie flat on the page? Do the situations in the narrative arise organically and naturally, or are they obvious constructs?

And what does the religious identity of the detective add to the story? Is it relevant to the tale, or is it merely a gimmick in a narrative that could it have just as well have been told with a gas station attendant searching for clues instead?

Let's see how this works: Kate Gallison has penned a series featuring an female Episcopal priest named Mother Lavinia Grey. In Grave Misgivings, Mother Grey must figure out why the grave of a young woman's grandfather isn't where it's supposed to be, and then who could have murdered an old enemy of the same grandfather. The plot isn't much to begin with, and it's not helped by simplistic writing or enhanced by the fact that the sleuth at hand is a priest. There's nothing distinctively spiritual about her perspective, her job doesn't impact the case at all, nor does she bring any particular moral weight to the resolution.

Just a little better, which means still not very good, is the series featuring Sister Mary Helen, written by a real religious sister, Carol Ann O'Marie. I read Death of an Angel, in which the intrepid older Sister Mary Helen solves the mystery of a local murder-rapist, and tries to help a sad young woman with problems of her own. Granted, here the protagonist acts out of her vocation - she's compassionate, and one of the victims of the murderer was an acquaintance of hers. But the mystery itself is amazingly clumsy, and the characters are flatter than my floor. Not exactly a good read.

Jesuit priest and novelist Fr. Brad Reynolds is worlds beyond either Gallison's or O'Marie's attempts in at least one of the volumes of his series featuring Father Mark Townsend, solving mysteries up in Washington state. Cruel Sanctuary is a surprisingly gripping book, rich with detail, psychological truth , a plot in which events are consistent and reasonable, rather than randomly picked from the Red Herring Basket, and a protagonist whose spiritual life actually impacts his actions as he gets involved in trying to figure out why street kids are getting murdered in Seattle. He's concerned about the street kids, but what gets him engaged in the mystery is that a note from him to one of the kids that he'd attached to some money is found on the dead body of the boy, implicating the priest, if not in his murder, at least in some people's minds, an inappropriate relationship with the boy. He's got to find out who's really responsible, not only out of compassion for the boy and his family, but to clear his own name as well. It makes sense. His attempts to knit the clues together ring true.

A lot of people like the mysteries of Notre Dame Thomistic scholar Ralph McInerny. He's writes about Father Dowling under his own name, Sister Mary Teresa Dempsy under the pseudonym of Monica Quill, and has a series of mysteries set at Notre Dame University as well. I've never read a Father Dowling, I'll admit, but I have read one each of the others, and I have to admit, I wasn't terribly impressed. No, we're not looking for great literature when we read mysteries, but we are looking for something a bit more than a not-to-hard to solve puzzle with a jabs at Church politics thrown in the mix.

Over the past months, new books featuring two of the more popular clerical sleuths have been published: The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain by Andrew Greeley, featuring Bishop Blackie Ryan traveling to France to help find a popular priest who�s gone missing, and The Sacrifice by William Kienzle (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $22.95), in which Father Rober Koesler, first seen in The Rosary Murders back in 1979, again sets to work, solving a church-related mystery in the rectories and pews of Detroit.

We won�t be reviewing the Greeley book here, simply because I only had fifteen minutes to read it in the bookstore, and it would have taken at least twenty-five. But The Sacrifice did come into my life, and, after a thorough reading within the inescapable confines of a long car trip, I�m here to reveal that it�s an astonishingly dreadful book.

The mystery is this: who planted the bomb that blew up in a church just about the time the entrance procession for the liturgy to re-ordain Episcopal priest George Wheatly into the Catholic Church should have made it to ground zero in the sanctuary, but for a delay from a mysterious phone call to Father Wheatly himself?

The problems with this book are many. First, there�s the matter of plot. The crime at the center of the novel is simply implausible. Even if the entrance of former Episcopal priests into Roman Catholic ministry has evoked some tensions on both sides, no one, to my knowledge, has attempted to blow anyone up over the matter, nor would they.

Then there�s character. Most of them in The Sacrifice are drawn directly from the Writer�s Stereotype Grab Bag: The saintly, popular Episcopal priest; his son the priest and his status-hungry wife; his daughter the lesbian Episcopal seminarian, and the grumpy disaffected conservative Romans. Actually, those in the last category, two priests who make their appearances at the beginning and end of the book grumbling about heretics and scandal, aren�t from the Grab Bag: they�re no one but Statler and Waldorf, the two old guys who heckled from the balcony on The Muppet Show, in clerics. But I digress.

Not as badly as Kienzle digresses in his novel, though. The book is actually less of a mystery than a string of expository chapters strung together for the dual purpose of presenting us with a series of red herrings as well as boring us with long, incredible conversations about church matters at what would be the oddest, most improbable times in reality. Somehow, in the minutes before the ceremony is to begin, Father Koesler manages to have two pages-long conversation with three priests (including Statler and Waldorf), in which they all offer their views, in the most stilted agitprop-type language imaginable, on the consequences of ordaining a married Episcopal. You get the idea.

Clerical mysteries can be entertaining, and they can be educational as well, as the inner workings of church both past and present and the minds of religious are revealed to the interested reader. It�s clear, however, that at this point in his long career, Kienzle is less interested in either authentic mystery fiction or opening a reader�s eyes to a different world than he is in simple and simplistic griping about church matters. It makes for a tendentious piece of work, and one that doesn�t even come close to meeting Chesterton�s explanation of what the �Ideal Detective Novel�, starring clerics or laity, should be about:

�The inconsistencies of human nature are indeed terrible and heart-shaking things, to be named with the same note of crisis as the hour of death and the Day of Judgment. They are not all fine shades, but some of them very fearful shadows, made by the primal contrast of darkness and light. Both the crimes and the confessions can be as catastrophic as lightning. Indeed, The Ideal Detective Story might do some good if it brought men back to understand that the world is not all curves, but that there are some things that are as jagged as the lightning-flash or as straight as the sword.�

Clerical or vowed religious characters are popular detectives in mystery fiction. Here are a few who star in their own series of books, which are, of course, of varying quality:

Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton�s �little Essex priest�
Brother Cadfael, the medieval monastic apothecary created by Ellis Peters.
Sister Frevisse, a member of a medieval English religious community, created by Margaret Fraser. I enjoyed this one.
Sister Fidelma , Peter Tremayne�s seventh-century Celtic nun. These, too, are good reads, although one has to doubt that life for women in 7th century Ireland was really this idyllic.

Thomistic scholar Ralph McInerny pens mysteries featuring Father Dowling and Sister Mary Teresa , the latter under the penname of Monica Quill

Sr. Mary Helen is featured in a series of books written by a real religious sister, Carol Anne O�Marie, CSJ.

Father Mark Townsend solves mysteries in the Pacific Northwest, home of his author, Fr. Brad Reynolds, S.J.

Sister Joan confronts crime that touches her community, the Daughters of Compassion in Cornwall, England, in books written by Veronica Black.

Once Father, now Bishop Blackie Ryan is the creation of Father Andrew Greeley.

There are series featuring non-Catholic clerical sleuths as well, from almost every denomination, one of the most memorable being Harry Kemelman�s books featuring Rabbi David Small � Friday the Rabbi Slept Late being the first. I also like the mysteries of Faye Kellerman, set in the world of Orthodox Judaism.

Here are a couple of websites with more information:

A helpful list on Amazon
A good list from Reader's Advice
Another good list

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