Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Fictional Clergy Detectives

At least for awhile, this will be my last post on detective fiction. But after I wrote my recent post on Columbo, a friend asked me my thoughts on the large number of fictional sleuths who are clergy: priests, monks, nuns, ministers, at least 2 rabbis, and, although not strictly “clergy,” the elderly clerk of a Friends (Quaker) meeting near Boston. My thoughts on this subject are not profound, I’m afraid, but here they are for what they are worth.

  • The first is rather obvious: Although clergy detectives abound in fiction, they seem rather rare in what we call the “real world.” I don’t know of a single priest, minister, etc. who has a reputation for solving crimes. If any have helped out the police with wisdom gained from their studies or calling, they have successfully kept this out of the media. Too bad, it might have made many clerics rather more interesting.
  • Second, many of these characters are interesting and surprisingly well written. Some make for some of the best reading in detective fiction.
  • The list is ecumenical and interfaith, but not evenly distributed. Perhaps because they are more distinctive, Catholic priests seem to outnumber all other clergy detectives in fiction. I have yet to find fictional Imam as a detective, nor any that were obviously conservative evangelical Protestants. I’m almost relieved by the absence of the latter because evangelicals who write fiction, as a general rule, preach too much; their attempts to use their fiction for apologetic or evangelistic purposes tend to overwhelm the stories as stories. Still, I’d like to see more ecumenical variety in the genre. Representatives of the Black Church or indigenous African churches are also notable by their absence.
  • Creating a believable and sympathetic clergy sleuth as a protagonist seems to present some special challenges that authors have not always met. If the character is “too perfect,” she or he is not very believable and probably a little boring, which is my impression of Chesterton’s Father Brown. (Others disagree with my impression.) But if the character has some of the truly interesting flaws of some of the great fictional detectives, e.g., Sherlock Holmes’ heroine addiction, Nero Wolfe’s gluttony and love of money, Sam Spade’s womanizing (including adulterous affair with his partner’s wife!) and shady dealings, etc., then the writer seems to be disrespectful of the religion which the clergy sleuth represents. Perhaps it is an attempt to walk such a fine line which has led three recent female clergy sleuths, all Episcopal/Anglican priests, to be portrayed as attracted to married men and tempted (but so far not crossing the line) to adulterous affairs with them. As Betty Smart Carter writes in an otherwise good review of these “mystery women” in The Christian Century, the results are unsatisfying. We would demand a higher standard for male clergy sleuths.
  • Some of the most interesting novels in this genre are also historical fiction, set in various parts of the Medieval world. Most famously in this area is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where a Franciscan monk (and former Inquisitor), Brother William of Baskerville, must solve a series of murders in a Dominican monastery. (It’s also very challenging reading–with many untranslated passages of Latin, Greek and other languages and a very difficult postmodern writing style.) But also worth mentioning in this regard are Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael (20 novels) and Peter Tremayne’s novels and short stories of Sister Fidelma. The latter are set in Ireland before Celtic Christianity was fully displaced by Roman Catholicism: Priests and nuns were allowed to marry; some monasteries were still mixed sex in population, and women like Sister Fidelma could become teachers and experts in the ancient laws of Ireland!

Among the many contemporary exemplars of this sub-genere of detective fiction, my favorites are the late Harry Kemalman’s (1908-1996) 11 novels of Rabbi David Small and Irene Allen’s ongoing series about Elizabeth Elliott , clerk of an unprogrammed Friends’ (Quaker) Meeting in Cambridge, MA. Rabbi Small solves mysteries by using logical processes honed from his rabbinical training. Elliott’s insights come from her Quaker dedication to the pursuit of Truth and deep knowledge of the ways that violence and deception are intertwined.

Among the entries to this genre which I have not yet read, I hope soon to sample, are Brad Reynolds’ Father Mark Townsend mysteries since the protagonist is a member of the Society of Jesus and my own encounters with Jesuit priests have left me deeply impressed with Jesuit education, spiritual discipline, and commitment to social justice.

I also want to sample Michelle Blake’s novels about Lilly Conner, an Episcopal priest in cowboy boots who is chaplain at a fictional counterpart to Tufts University.

I’d love to see a well-written example with a Mennonite pastor, a Black Baptist, a Latino Pentacostal or some other mold-breaking, stereotype-shattering, character, but the story would first have to work well as a mystery. I could do without any more Dan Brown-type conspiracy thrillers that the public takes as nonfiction, though. One Da Vinci Code nonsense a decade is surely enough.

November 24, 2006 Posted by | detective fiction | 3 Comments