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

Fictional Clergy Detectives II

From time to time, I have taken a break on this blog from my usual topics in theology, religious social criticism, politics, etc., to write about one of my hobbies: detective fiction. It’s usually done better in books than in film, but there are exceptions, and I have previously written about Columbo and The Closer.  I also wrote a column about Fictional Clergy Detectives.  Now, I will follow up on that column.

Note: I owe much of my research on this post (especially for series I have not read) to Philip Grossett’s excellent site, Clerical Detectives.  I failed to give him credit previously and he rightly called me on it.  As I used to tell my students (when I had them), intentionality has nothing to do with whether or not something is plagiarism.  Although this is not an academic publication, just a personal blog, I still need to be careful to attribute my sources.  My apologies to both Philip and Readers. (Orig. pub. May 04, 2008.)

This is a list of as many fictional “clergy” (stretching the term in some cases) as I have found. If I have read any of their mysteries, I will comment on them, but otherwise just link to more information.  Enjoy.

Fictional Sleuths From Non-Christian “Clergy.”  I list these interfaith sleuths first simply because they are so few and it is easy to overlook them.

Darcy Lott is the creation of veteran mystery writer Susan Dunlap, who has written other series and single novels.  Although she also has another job (stuntwoman!), Darcy is an American Zen Buddhist living in San Francisco. She is a jisha (assistant to the roshi or Zen spiritual leader) at the Ninth Street Zen Center in San Francisco.  There are 2 Darcy Lott novels to date:  A Single Eye (2006), which is a very Zen title, and Hungry Ghosts (2008). I have not read either of these novels, yet, so I cannot comment on quality, etc.

I have yet to see any fictional detectives who are Imams or other leaders in Islamic traditions.  There are, however, 2 fictional detectives who are rabbis and 1 who is a rabbi’s wife (rebbetzin).

Rabbi David Small is the fictional creation of Harry Kemelman (1908-1996), a former schoolteacher whose own father was an immigrant rabbi from Russia.  He created the character of Rabbi Small in order to explain Judaism (as Kemelman’s own centrist Conservative Jewish tradition sees it) to both Gentiles and to rapidly assimilating American Jews. I love this character and the novels. Rabbi Small uses pipul or rabbinic logic in solving crimes and the stories work as mysteries. As a teen, this was my first introduction to Judaism from a Jewish perspective. Small, and Kemelman, have their blind spots: His description of faith-based social action seems more caught from American individualism than from Judaism. In Monday the Rabbi Took Off, the Smalls travel to Israel for a Sabbatical and Rabbi Small describes Israeli treatment of Arabs in glowing terms that probably showed bias, THEN, and certainly fails to match current reality.  And often Kemelman’s/Small’s descriptions of Christian views seem to this Christian to miss the point considerably.  But if one loves mysteries, one does not expect to share all the biases and perspectives of the sleuth/hero.  The Rabbi Small mysteries are, in order of writing:

  • Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964), the debut, which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America. Title refers to R. Small sleeping in and missing the regular morning prayer service.
  • Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966). Title refers to R. Small fasting for Yom Kippur.
  • Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (1969). Title refers to the Smalls’ late return out of town on Sat. night and so missing a crucial board meeting the next day.
  • Monday the Rabbi Took Off (1972). The Smalls take a Sabbatical in Israel.
  • Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red (1974). R. Small teaches a course in Judaism at a local college and gets angry with student behavior (I sympathize).
  • Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet (1976).  Hurricane Betsy narrowly misses Mass. and R. Small gets briefly caught in the rain.
  • Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out (1978).  Title refers to R. Small getting angry with constant attempts by his board to fire him and simply leaving his office and taking a day off–which leads him to solve the current mystery, of course.
  • Someday the Rabbi Will Leave (1985).
  • One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (1987). No, he didn’t convert to Christianity.
  • The Day the Rabbi Resigned (1992).
  • That Day the Rabbi Left Town (1996).

There is also Conversations with Rabbi Small (1981), which is not a mystery.

Rabbi Daniel Winter is the creation of an actual rabbi, Joseph Telushkin, who has written works on Jewish ethics and humor.  Rabbi Winter is a more contemporary figure than Rabbi Small. He is described as an Orthodox rabbi in a Conservative congregation with Reform laypeople!  He has his own radio show (“Religion and You”) and is the author of The Religious Manifesto.  He is better at growing his congregation than Rabbi Small. When asked if he is a male chauvenist, he replies that he probably is–but that sometimes he is ashamed of it. I haven’t read the series, but they seem to do well on Amazon.com, so I will probably check them out. 

  • The Unorthodox Murder of Rabbi Wahl (1987). A feminist (and female) rabbi is deliberately run over by an automobile after appearing as a guest on Rabbi Winter’s controversial radio talk show. Since he disapproves of female rabbis as a distortion of Judaism, Rabbi Winter is an initial suspect.
  • An Eye for an Eye (1991).
  • The Final Analysis of Dr. Stark (1998).

Ruby the Rabbi’s Wife is actually the Rabbi’s widow. The character is described initially as a bouncy, lively extrovert of 46 who owns a deli called “The Hot Bagel.” The books are all told from her perspective and in her words. She is “a solid size 14,” with auburn hair and curls cut short and green eyes. She has a 14 year old son, a 3 legged dog named Oy Vay (I love that!), and later gets a kitten she names Chutzpah! The lively widow is no longer young and beautiful, but doesn’t lack for male admirers including Kevin the incompetent rabbi and Paul Lundy, the police Lieutenant.  Ruby the Rabbi’s Wife is the creation of Sharon Kahn, an attorney and arbitrator who was, herself, the wife of a rabbi for 31 years. (Write what you know!)  I haven’t read these, but they sound intriguing. (This description comes nearly verbatim from Philip Grossett. See above.)

  • Fax Me a Bagel (1998).
  • Never Nosh a Matzo Ball (2000).
  • Don’t Cry for Me, Hot Pastrami (2001).
  • Hold the Cream Cheese, Kill the Lox (2002).
  • Which Big Giver Stole the Chopped Liver? (2004).
  • Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Choir (2006).

Fictional Clergy Detectives: “Modern” Roman Catholic Priests (I.E., not set in Medieval settings).

Father Brown is the prototype of Catholic priest/amateur sleuth of fiction.  He may even be the first of the fictional clergy detectives, period. He is the creation of G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), a prolific author whose conversion to Catholicism turned him into an apologist for conservative Christianity (especially Catholicism). Chesterton based the fictional Father Brown on actual Isrish Catholic priest, Fr. John O’Connor of St. Cuthbert, Bradford, who was the human catalyst and guide for Chesterton’s conversion. The Fr. Brown stories are short stories collected in 5 volumes.  I have not really enjoyed these stories, myself. I find Fr. Brown too perfect a character to be believable, though many others disagree.

  • The Innocence of Father Brown (1910).
  • The Wisdom of Father Brown (1913).
  • The Incredulity of Father Brown (1923).
  • The Secret of Father Brown (1927).
  • The Scandal of Father Brown (1935).

Fr. Ralph McInerny, who teaches at Notre Dame, created the popular sleuth, Father Dowling.  This series of novels became so popular that (rather lame) TV series was spun off, Father Dowling Mysteries (in the UK known as Father Dowling Investigates). It ran for a few years in the ’90s.  I was so unimpressed by the TV series that I have never picked up any of the books. Friends who are fellow mystery buffs inform me that this was a mistake, so I may correct it soon. McInerny is still writing these novels and they are still selling well.

Father (later Bishop) Blackie Ryan is the creation of Rev. Dr.  Andrew M. Greeley (1928-), himself a Catholic priest (of a decidedly liberal bent) and a sociologist of religion who has also written other best-selling novels.  Fr. Ryan is the Rev. Monsignor John Blackwood Ryan, S.T.L., Ph.D. (and later Bishop), a priest and a philosopher. In the first book, he is just past 40 and Rector of Holy Name Cathedral.  Fr. Ryan is the author of such unlikely treatises as Truth in William James: An Irishman’s Best Guess and James Joyce: Catholic Theologian! Many have accused Ryan of being the alter ego of the author, but Greeley says that though Ryan often speaks in his voice, he has a different appearance and qualifications and gets on better with church authorities. He is presented by the author as the best of American Catholicism. (Throughout the series, Ryan sometimes refers to God as “She” or “Her.” This has both biblical and traditional precedent, but, I find it unbelievable that, since the Roman Church has backed away from Vatican II, that any priest who did this could still become consecrated as a bishop! Maybe Greeley was being hopeful about the future?)

I think this series works well as mystery fiction and I like Fr./Bishop Ryan very much.  He reminds me, slightly, of some priests I knew as colleagues when I taught religion and philosophy in a Catholic university.

  • Happy Are the Meek (1985).
  • Happy Are the Clean of Heart. (1987)
  • Happy Are Those Who Thirst After Justice. (1987)
  • Happy Are the Merciful. (1992)
  • Happy Are the Peacemakers (1993)
  • Happy Are the Poor in Spirit (1994).
  • Happy Are Those Who Mourn (1995).
  • Happy Are the Oppressed (1996).

Greeley changes publishers Blackie’s move from priest to auxiliary bishop.  In these latter books, there are more elaborate conspiracies. One learns much church history (from a Catholic viewpoint).  For instance, in The Bishop in the Old Neighborhood, one of Blackie’s adversaries is a retired Notre Dame professor who was a progressive before Vatican II, but changed his mind later. We learn that he is devoted to the theory that the papacy has been invalid since 1959 (there is a real movement that believes this) and, so, he respects Blackie’s position but not his authority since only a valid pope could appoint a bishop! In The Bishop Goes to THE University (which, in Chicago, always means the University of Chicago and not any of the many other universities in the area), Blackie gets embroiled in a very complex plot involving the Vatican, the CIA, the KGB and its successor the FSB and the complex relationships between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  The plot seems unlikely, but not impossible–far more possible than the kind of thing Dan Brown popularized in The Da Vinci Code.  I know, for instance, from my own small contacts with Christians from the former Soviet Union that the KGB repeatedly inserted agents into the ranks of Orthodox monks and the clergy of Protestant groups, too.  Christians I have met from Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America have told me that the CIA tried the same thing all during the Cold War–and is probably still trying to subvert clergy as part of the so-called “war on terror.”

  • The Bishop at Sea (1997). British title: Blackie at Sea.
  • The Bishop and the Three Kings. (1998)
  • The Bishop and the L Train (2000).
  • The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain (2001).
  • The Bishop in the West Wing (2002).
  • The Bishop Goes to THE University (2003).
  • The Bishop in the Old Neighborhood (2005).


Father Robert Koesler (pronounced “Kessler”) was created by William X. Kienzle (1928-2001), who had been a Roman Catholic priest himself for 20 years before resigning over the refusal of the Catholic Church to remarry divorced people.  The character appears in 24 novels, helping police solve murders that have a Catholic connection.  Kienzle may have been the first priest to write detective stories–and been the inspiration for Greeley’s works above.  The Fr. Koesler novels are set in Detroit. There are too many of them to list, but all are readily available. The first is The Rosary Murders (1979).

Father Mark Townsend, S.J. is the creation of an actual Jesuit Priest, Fr. Brad Reynolds, S.J. (1949-). Both the actual Fr. Reynolds and the fictional Fr. Townsend used to live in Alaska.  Fr. Reynolds is a priest in Oregon and Fr. Townsend is in Seattle, WA.  Jesuit education involves around 15 years of study in philosophy and theology, interrupted by a “regency” which is hard work in the field. Reynolds uses this intense educational program in his approach to Fr. Townsend’s sleuthing–he arrives at the answer in ways that often involve more abstract logic than “real world” experience.  The strength of this series lies in characterization and setting, but it is weaker on plot. One hopes that will change in future books.

  • The Story Knife (1966).
  • A Ritual Death (1997).
  • Cruel Sanctuary (1999).
  • Deadly Harvest (1999).

Father Joseph Bredder is one of the best of the Catholic priest sleuths of fiction, to my (liberal, Protestant) mind.  He is the creation of Leonard Wibberly (1915-1983), an adventurous journalist turned novelist, who wrote under his own name, under the names Patrick O’ Connor, Christopher Webb, and, for the Father Bredder mysteries, Leonard Holton.  Wibberly’s most famous novel was the 1955 The Mouse That Roared, a satirical farce about a tiny European country that declared war on the U.S. and was made into a movie starring Peter Sellers.   Holton claims that he wanted to write mysteries, but disliked the violence of many sleuths or the fussiness of the “Miss Jane Marple” types. So, he created Fr. Bredder, a former professional boxer and ex-U.S. Marine turned Franciscan priest as a nonviolent detective who was also decidedly masculine.  The stories are very fast moving and set in San Francisco.  There are 11 novels.

  • The Saint Maker (1959).
  • A Pact with Satan (1960).
  • Secret of the Doubting Saint (1961).
  • Deliver Us from Wolves (1963).
  • Flowers By Request (1964).
  • Out of the Depths (1966).
  • A Touch of Jonah (1968).
  • A Problem in Angels (1970).
  • The Mirror of Hell (1972).
  • The Devil to Play (1974).
  • A Corner of Paradise (1977).


Medieval Monks/Friars as Sleuths:

The best example in this category is Umberto Eco’s classic, The Name of the Rose (1980 in Italian; 1983 in English) which became a movie by the same title.  The hero is Brother William of Baskerville, a brilliant Franciscan monk (who used to be a Dominican and a member of the Inquisition) and he must solve a series of murders in an isolated monastery in 14th C. Italy.  A  must read.

Edith Pargeter (1913-1995), writing under the pen-name of Ellis Peters, created an excellent Medieval sleuth, Brother Cadfael, a monk in a Benedictine abbey in 12th C. Shrewsbury near the Welsh border.  There are 20 novels, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) and a BBC TV series based on the novels ran for some years. Peters won several awards for the novels and was eventually awarded an Order of the British Empire for her work.  I am just now discovering these and can’t yet evaluate them. I don’t know the historical period well enough to know how accurate the historical part of this historical fiction is, but the mysteries themselves are challenging. The Medieval setting means that the detective, Bro. Cadfael, cannot just wait for the crime lab to solve everything.

There are several others in this category, but I have not waded through them, yet.  I’ll end this post here and pick up soon with fictional nuns/women religious as sleuths, then turn to the many Protestant variations.

June 14, 2008 - Posted by | detective fiction


  1. That’s funny – I read some of Edith Pargeter’s years ago and loved them – but I thought the pen name was Ellis Peters. Maybe my memory is playing tricks.

    Comment by steph | May 7, 2008

  2. Ah I was right. She does call herself Ellis Peters. Great books and probably the last fiction I read before I went back to university! (Mind you alot of what I now read involves alot of creative imagination)

    Comment by steph | May 7, 2008

  3. Thanks for the correction, Steph. I MEANT to write “Ellis Peters.” Do I have typing dyslexia? 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 7, 2008

  4. I wondered if you did … it’s good though. Mum makes me laugh all the time with her constant spoonerisms.

    Comment by steph | May 7, 2008

  5. I was interested to read your comments on clergy detectives as some of them sound remarkably familiar to ones I made on my Clerical Detectives site. What you said about Ruby the Rabbi’s wife, for example, seems to have been almost entirely lifted from my entry on the same subject. And your classification of types of clergy detectives follows mine with remarkable accuracy.
    You are very welcome to make use of my research in this way, but an acknowledgment of this would have been very welcome!Or is it there but I failed to see it?

    Comment by Philip Grosset | June 14, 2008

  6. Philip, you are right. I was in a hurry and too closely paraphrased. I will correct the situation immediately.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 14, 2008

  7. I may not be a very good fit in your category, but you may want to explore my “parallel universe” some day.
    I am a former priest (who left on my own terms because I found the Catholic Church’s claims of moral superiority to be a sham. In recent years I have become a real life detective of sorts, investigating the role of the Christian churches in the Jewish holocaust and publishing my findings at http://JesusWouldBeFurious.Org/RCscandal .

    It’s hard to understand why people should get away with being accessories to the mass murder of millions simply because they disguise themselves in religiosity, doing just about everything that their founder told them NOT to do!

    Comment by Rev. Ray Dubuque | June 15, 2008

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  9. Are you sure about Guglielmo of Baskerville being an ex-Dominican? From what I recall, the novel presents him indeed as a former inquisitor, but that’s all.

    Comment by blogescu | March 10, 2009

  10. The Dominicans were in charge of the Inquisition, so he’d have to be a former Dominican to be a former Inquisitor. But I don’t remember if they spell this out.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 10, 2009

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