Another purely subjective list. As mentioned before on this blog, I love detective fiction. I think it hones the mind and is also entertaining.
Some also rans and honorable mentions:
- Thomas Magnum from Magnum, P.I. TV series of the ’80s. Lousy detective who solved everything by sheer luck, but a fun show. A kind of “Peter Pan” Boy Who Never Grew Up, Magnum had a great gig: Live in a beautiful Hawai’ian mansion owned by a never-present novelist rent-free; drive absent novelist-friend’s hot car; spend much time at beach around beautiful women; get friends Rick and TC to do most of your leg work.
- Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote. I really don’t like this “Miss Jane Marple” style of female detective. But it was hilarious to see how many murders one small New England town could have. Cabot Cove, ME had a higher crime rate than New York, London, or Tokyo!
- Crockett and Tubbs of Miami Vice. This show was not really about serious crime fiction. It was about fast cars, cool clothes, great music in the background, and beautiful women. You have a problem with that?
- The Scooby Gang from the Scooby Doo cartoons.
- The Three Investigators–I never got into The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew (though both my wife and daughters like Nancy) but this trio of adolescent boys from Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators helped launch my love for the genre as a young boy.
- Brother William of Baskerville, 11th C. Franciscan monk (formerly a Dominican and a part of the Inquisition) who solves the murders in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Only in one novel/movie, but makes a lasting impression.
- Adrian Monk from the TV series Monk. The “Defective Detective” has far too many neuroses to be believable as a functioning human being, never mind detective, but the show is quite fun and Tony Shalaub is hilarious.
- Inspector Clouseau–just because the Pink Panther movies (the originals, not the remakes) were so funny.
- From the comments: Mma Precious Ramotswe, heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series set in Botswana. When I made the list, I had watched the HBO series, but had not yet read any of the novels–they’re better.
- Sherlock Holmes the first “consulting detective” as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Edgar Allen Poe created the modern detective story (there were forerunners in both ancient Chinese and medieval Arabic fiction) with C. August Dupin of Murders in the Rue Morgue, but Holmes was the classic and, in my opinion, still the best. No one was more brilliant than the flawed Victorian who continually showed up Scotland Yard.
- Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s idiosyncratic Belgian police inspector turned London private investigator. Murder on the Orient Express rivals Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles for greatest detective novel of all time.
- Sister Fidelma Peter Tremayne’s Catholic nun who solves mysteries in 7th C. Ireland. I rank Sister Fidelma so highly not only because of the careful historical research, but because she has to solve these mysteries without the advantage of modern forensic science–while even Holmes benefitted from the early days of the science.
- Batman—okay, those who only know the movies and ’60s TV show are howling right now. But Batman was never just a costumed crimefighter. From the beginning, he was also a detective who combined the inductive reasoning (Doyle was wrong to call it “deductive,” a mistake Holmes himself would never have made) of Sherlock Holmes with the extra-legal cat burglar techniques of Maurce LeBlanc’s Gentleman thief, Arsene Lupin. Batman first appeared, after all, in Detective Comics Magazine and didn’t get his own title for a year.
- Columbo is my personal favorite and played brilliantly by Peter Falk. My tribute to Columbo on this blog is found here.
- Nero Wolfe the brilliant creation of Rex Stout. An immigrant to the U.S. from the Balkans, Wolfe gives up the active life of his adventurous youth (of which we just get, sometimes contradictory, hints) for that of a wealthy, lazy, gourmet and recluse. But to finance this idiosyncratic lifestyle, he is a high paid private investigator. Since he seldom (and only reluctantly) leaves his house, his leg work has to be done by the narrator, his live-in assistant, Archie Goodwin. (Incidentally, 3 life-long bachelors–the great chef, Fritz, included–living without women, would today raise huge questions, although Archie dated frequently. But when Stout was writing, a female in the house would have been more scandalous. If Archie and Wolfe loved one another, it was purely platonic–Wolfe’s incredible obesity would have turned off Archie even if he had been gay.)
- V. I. Warshawski–Sara Paretsky’s hard-drinking, hard loving female private investigator (Victoria Iphrigenia Warshawski) is in the hard-bitten, tough “Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer” tradition. But while Vic is as tough as the boys who pioneered this sub-genre, she is MUCH smarter and more believable.
- Rabbi David Small, the brilliant creation of Harry Kemelman. Rabbi Small is in the tradition of fictional clergy detectives that began with Chesterton’s Father Brown. I love the way he uses his training in Talmudic reasoning to solve crimes.
- Chen Cao, the Chinese detective creation of Qiu Xialong set in the China of the 1990s. This is the first Chinese detective I ever encountered actually written by a person of Chinese ethnicity. Thus, Cao does not fit the terrible “Charlie Chan” stereotypes. And the novels also tell much of modern China. Good stuff.
- Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson of the great TNT series, The Closer. See my tribute here.
- Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard by the great P.D. James. “Inspector Morse” is a cheap imitation. a clone, “modeled” on Dalgliesh. No matter how I word this, my friend, Kevin Borders, will be p.o.’d. Sorry, Kev, we’ll have to agree to disagree here.
- Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, one of the first successful African-American fictional private investigators and written by an African-American, Walter Mosely. One of the Easy Rawlins novels, Devil in a Blue Dress was made into a feature film in 1995 with Denzel Washington playing Easy Rawlins. I hope other adaptations follow.
- Alex Cross is another African-American fictional detective–a forensic psychologist who first works for the D.C. police in homicide and later joins the F.B.I. Dr. Cross has been played by Morgan Freeman in 2 film adaptations of James Patterson’s novels.
- Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, forensic anthropologist and sleuthing hero of Kathy Reich’s novels and the TV series “Bones.” Forget Gil Grissom and all his CSI colleagues. For a forensic scientist sleuth, I ‘ll take Dr. Brennan any day.
- Father (later Bishop) “Blackie” Ryan, the clergy detective hero of Andrew Greeley’s novels–given more realism than most similar creations because Greeley is himself a priest and theologian. Yes, Ryan is an alter-ego, but Greeley, a liberal product of Vatican II, freely admits that Blackie Ryan gets along with the Catholic heirarchy much better than he does.
- Jim Rockford of the 1970s TV series, The Rockford Files. An ex-con who works as a private investigator just to earn enough money to keep his beachfront trailer.
- Veronica Mars of the TV series of the same name which ran on UPN and CW from 2004 to 2007. Here was a teenaged girl detective cut from a tougher mold than Nancy Drew. When the series opens, Veronica is a 17 year old high school student–lower middle class in a very rich neighborhood. Her widowed father, Keith Mars, has been fired as sheriff for refusing to go along with the official version of a high profile murder. He is forced to become a private investigator and Veronica has an after school job as his secretary–which leads to her own sleuthing. She has a motive other than love for her father–trying to solve her own date rape at 16. (We don’t know if her father knows. They never discuss it and the other kids at school think it was consensual sex–drunken and anonymous. This has given her an undeserved “slut” reputation at this nasty elitist school.) The series lasts long enough to get Veronica into university (where she studies criminology and sociology and passes her own private investigator’s licensing test with a 95%).
- Spenser (first name never revealed), the hero of Robert B. Parker’s novels set in Boston (though Spenser was originally from Wyoming) and of the TV series, Spenser, for Hire. I found it ironic that no-first-name Spenser hung around with an African-American hit man named “Hawk” with no last name. (I also kept wondering what would happen if Hawk was given a contract on Spenser.) From the comments: Apparently one novel revealed Spenser’s first name as “Matt” and Hawk turned down several offered contracts on Spenser. Good to know. Since I originally wrote this, Robert Parker has died at 77.
- Perry Mason, Earl Stanley Gardner’s super-sleuthing criminal defense lawyer. The novels are even better than the TV show starring Raymund Burr. This was the original courtroom drama. Of course, it was unbelievable that a defense lawyer (whose job is merely to raise reasonable doubt in a jury’s mind about his/her client’s guilt of accused crimes) would constantly be able to get the real criminal to confess on the witness stand–but it was fun watching. Because I once worked as a bailiff in a felony (circuit) court in Jacksonville, FL, I could never handle the other TV lawyer-detective “Matlock.” Matlock constantly broke courtroom procedure. No judge would let him get away with that stuff.
- Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw the futuristic cop and robot partner created by Isaac Asimov. Asimov wanted to prove that one could write a detective novel set in the future without having futuristic gadgets solve everything. He did so brilliantly in 3 novels.
- Jesse Stone, ex-L.A. cop turned police chief of the small Massachussetts town of Paradise. This is Robert Parker’s far more realistic alternative to Spenser. Stone is dealing with alcoholism, divorce (and his wife won’t let him move on), and small town politics while solving murders with no budget, lab, etc. A series of TV movies have adapted these novels with Tom Selleck playing Jesse Stone–showing far more acting talent than when Selleck played “Magnum.”
- Harry Dresden of Jim Butcher’s “urban fantasy” novels about the only wizard listed in the Chicago phone book as such. The Sci-Fi channel unsuccessfully tried to adapt these into a series known as The Dresden Files.
- Ellah Clah, the Navajo female detective of spousal writing team David and Aimee Thurlo. She left the reservation to join the FBI, but returns to solve her father’s murde r and ends up joining the tribal police and continuing on The Rez. Great stories and you learn much about Navajo culture, too.
- Elizabeth Elliott, the clerk of a Quaker Meeting in Cambridge, MA in a series of novels written by Irene Allen.
- Kinsey Milhone from Sue Grafton’s “ABC Murders.” Kevin Borders will be arguing that I should rank her higher, but she made the cut.
I await your interaction–additions, subtractions, different rankings, etc.
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.
Medieval Nuns Who Solve Mysteries. You would not believe how many series fall into this category. I include only a few of the better ones here.
Sister Fidelma is the creation of Peter Tremayne, the pen name of Irish journalist Peter Ellis. Ellis has degrees in Celtic studies and that background allows him to create a very believable world for his sleuth. Sister Fidelma is a “religieuse” or nun in mid-7th C. Ireland, the period in which Celtic Christianity was being overpowered and subordinated to the increasingly autocratic Church of Rome. At this time in Irish history, monks and nuns could still marry (as could “secular” priests throughout Western Europe) and many convents and monasteries were mixed sex in composition. Women could still manage to wield considerable authority, too. Sister Fidelma is not only a nun, but a dalaigh, an advocate of the ancient laws of Ireland, a position that combined features of the modern police investigator with the modern attorney at law. (She is also sister to the Irish king!) The Celtic names are difficult, but the laws and customs are clearly explained in each book. Tremayne’s descriptive passages need some work, but he constructs suspenseful plots. This is the best series of “Medieval nuns who are detectives.”
- Absolution by Murder (1994).
- Shroud for the Archbishop (1995).
- Suffer Little Children (1995).
- The Subtle Serpent (1996).
- The Spider’s Web (1997).
- Valley of the Shadow (1998).
- The Monk Who Vanished (1999).
- Act of Mercy (1999).
- Hemlock at Vespers(2000). A collection of Sister Fidelma short stories.
- Our Lady of Darkness (2000).
- Smoke in the Wind (2001).
- The Haunted Abbot (2002).
- Badger’s Moon (2003).
- The Leper’s Bell (2004).
- Whispers of the Dead (2004). More short stories.
- Master of Souls (2005).
Catherine LeVendeur is the creation of Sharan Newman (1949-) who has an M.A. in Medieval Literature and has completed work for a Ph.D. in history. LeVendeur is a novice when we first meet her, sent to a convent by her father because she is too intelligent and headstrong for him to successfully marry off. The year is 1139, LeVendeur is 18, and she has become a novice at the Convent of the Paraclete in France. Her Abess is Heloise (who, in actual history, was the lover of the philosopher-theologian Peter Abelard before the relationship was broken up and the lovers forced into separate holy orders!) Before the end of the first novel, Catherine is an ex-nun and in subsequent novels is married. So, this series may not actually fit the category of “clergy detectives” even when stretched to include nuns. I haven’t read this series, but the descriptions of Catherine and Edgar’s marriage sound too modern to be believable–even though I know there were more strong-willed, independent, and powerful women in the Middle Ages than we generally think. Still, it is true that our Western concept of Romantic love began in the Middle Ages, even if few marriages were love matches. There are other parts that don’t ring true. One reviewer said the novels tend to read like a view of Medieval France from the perspective of a contemporary American Jew, rather than from the perspective of the characters themselves.
- Death Comes as Epiphany (1993).
- The Devil’s Door (1994).
- The Wandering Arm (1995).
- Strong as Death (1996).
- Cursed in the Blood (1998).
- The Difficult Saint (1999).
- To Wear the White Cloak (2000).
- Heresy (2002).
- The Outcast Dove (2003).
- The Witch in the Well (2004).
Prioress Eleanor is the creation of Priscilla Royale who appends historical notes to the back of the 3 novels to date in this series. She has created an interesting cast of characters and background. Eleanor is a nun in the Order of Fontrevand, an actual monastic order (which no longer exists) whose mother house was in Paris, though these stories are set in England. Fontrevand was a rare (for the time) double order: monks and nuns housed separately in double houses, but with the Prioress head of both the monks and nuns–an order most thought unnatural. We begin in the year 1270 and Saxons still chafe under Norman rule. Eleanor of Wynthethorpe is the only daughter of a minor Norman lord who was raised mostly in a convent. At 20, she is appointed prioress of her own abbey (Tyndal) over more experienced women–with predictable results. She solves crimes in tandem with Brother Thomas, who, unknown to her, has no true calling as a monk. Rather, Thomas was a young clerk who was caught in a homosexual encounter and imprisoned and tortured and threatened with death at the stake if he did not agree to become a monk–and an investigative spy for Mother Church. There had been no executions for “sodomy” in Britain at the time, but many were clamoring this punishment, which was common on the Continent. The fascinating thing about this series is that Eleanor privately struggles with feelings of lust for Brother Thomas (despite spending hours prostrate on cold concrete in penance!) while Thomas struggles to keep his sexual orientation and his past from Eleanor and his monastic community. The first two mysteries are fairly believable, but by the third installment, it is difficult to believe that a Prioress from an isolated convent would have so many chance encounters with murder. Royale’s strength as an author is to show us characters with the prejudices of their age, but also to show us that the Medieval World was not as monochromatic as we imagine. For instance, women had less rights in the Victorian era of than in the Middle Ages. Further, since death in childbirth was common, few children in the Middle Ages reached adulthood with both parents still alive, and often had a succession of step-parents. Thus, they had more in common with modern children than with the intact, two parent household of the idealized 1950s. The books are fun and if more are written, I will probably give them a try.
- Wine of Violence (2003).
- Tyrant of the Mind (2004).
- Sorrow Without End (2006).
Contemporary Nuns Who Solve Crimes (Again, culled from an unbelievably long list.)
Sister Cecile is the most unbelievable of these fictional sleuthing women religious. The creation of the late Winona Sullivan, Sister Cecile is a rich heiress whose father (a professional atheist) had tied up her inheritance in such a way that she could not use it for religious purposes. She gets around this by becoming a licensed private investigator (hanging her P.I. license between a copy of the Sistine Madonna and a gold framed photo of her mother). Through an arrangement with her order, she accesses her inheritance through her credit card for non-religious purposes, the expenses of her investigations. Profits earned are then able to go to her order. (Sure, because this happens all the time!)
There are four (4) Sister Cecile novels:
- A Sudden Death at the Norfolk Cafe (1993).
- Dead South (1996).
- Death’s a Beach (1998).
- Saving Death (2000).
Aimee and David Thurlo write the mysteries of Sister Agatha, a former investigative journalist and journalism professor who had not been a pillar of virtue before becoming a nun. She is an extern nun at Our Lady of Hope convent in the New Mexico desert. The order (the Sisters of the Blessed Adoration) is fictional, but based on 2 actual cloistered orders that have special meaning to Aimee. As an extern nun, Sister Agatha is responsible for her order’s interaction with the external world and does not have to celebrate all the liturgical offices with the other 9 sisters of the order. As with many real world convents and female religious orders, this one suffers from a dearth of new vocations!
To date, there are 4 Sister Agatha mysteries:
- Bad Faith(2002). With a Sartrean title like that, one would think this was about a ’60s style liberal Protestant, rather than a Catholic nun!
- Thief in Retreat (2004).
- Prey for a Miracle (2006).
- False Witness (2007).
Famed author Anthony Boucher (1911-1968), writing under the pen name of H. H. Holmes (which was also the pseudonymn used by an infamous real life criminal!), wrote the 2 novels of Sister Ursula.Boucher was a devout, pre-Vatican II Catholic who served as a layreader. This helps give these novels some air of realism and his mystery writing skills are superior to many of the other “nun-as-sleuth” novelists. If you are only going to sample one series in this category, go with the Sister Ursula novels.
- Nine Times Nine (1940).
- Rocket to the Morgue (1942).
Alison Josephs (1959-), a journalist and British TV producer turned novelist, has created the Sister Agnes series. She studied the detective genre for some time before trying her hand. She decided that the most successful fictional sleuths were those with no ties like Philip Marlowe. She decided to make her heroine a nun since it is otherwise difficult to imagine a woman without ties, without anyone relying on her such as a mother, daughter, or husband/partner. Sister Agnes has been a nun for 15 years when we meet her and is now outside of a convent running a project for runaway teens. This is a far more believable setting for a nun getting entangled in murder mysteries, in my opinion. This is a contemporary series and gives no easy answers of faith–Sister Agnes struggles with her doubts and fears and, having been in an abusive marriage before becoming a nun, continues to struggle with her vow of chastity. (Her temptations are sexually explicit, so this is not a series to introduce to young readers.)
- Sacred Hearts (1994).
- The Hour of Our Death (1995).
- The Quick and the Dead (1996).
- A Dark and Sinful Death (1997).
- The Dying Light (1999).
- The Night Watch (2000).
- The Darkening Sky (2004).
- Shadow of Death (2007).
Anglican/Episcopalian Priests as Fictional Sleuths
This is ALSO a much longer list than I would have expected. So, once more, I am only going to list the best of those I have surveyed.
The Revd. Harry Westerham, Vicar of Cobbleswick (46 mi. from London) was the creation of Victor. L. Whitechurch (1868-1933), himself an Anglican vicar. He appeared in only one book with a rather dated English dialogue. But the Revd. Westerham is a very interesting and engaging sleuth–far more so than many of the Medieval nuns! The Crime at Diana’s Pool (1926) may be difficult to locate in your local library or second hand bookstore, but keep at it.
The Rev. Charles Meyer (1947-2000), an Episcopal priest in the American Southwest, actually created not one, but TWO priest-detectives! Rev. Lucas (Father) Holt is a former prison chaplain who has reluctantly taken over St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in downtown Austin. We are told that this parish has well-off parishioners whose theology covers everything from charismatic fundamentalists to social justice liberals “and every perversion in between!” Fr. Holt maintains regular contact with a group of ex-cons he helped rehabilitate and seems to like many of them more than some of his parishioners. He is a priest with a strong social conscience and one can find 3 excellent novels with him as protagonist:
- The Saints of God Murders (1995).
- Blessed Are the Merciless (1996). The title sounds to me like the way Dick Cheney misreads the Bible.
- Beside the Still Waters (1997).
The other priest detective created by Meyers is Rev. Matt Beck, chaplain of Grassland Hospital, NYC. Beck worked his way through General Theological Seminary (an actual Episcopal Seminary) while working a part-time job and working full time on his marriage. He was only married two years, though, before his wife was murdered–which is ten years before we first meet him. He’s now dating a photojournalist. In the only novel featuring Fr. Beck, Deathangel (2000), he encounters a serial killer.
Margaret Scherf (1908-1979) created one of the more interesting clerical detectives in The Rev. Dr. Martin Buell, a round, widower with a sardonic sense of humor who has been sent to take over Christ Church, Farrington, CO. As a high church Episcopalian, he finds the parish far too Low Church Protestant and keeps threatening to quit and become a cattle rancher. These are mid-20th C. and may be a bit dated, but some church problems seem perennial–as is murder, unfortunately.
- Always Murder a Friend (1948).
- For the Love of Murder. Orig. Title: Gilbert’s Last Toothache (1949).
- Divine and Deadly. Orig. Title: The Curious Custard Pie (1950).
- The Elk and the Evidence (1952).
- The Cautious Overshoes (1956).
- Never Turn Your Back (1959).
- The Corpse in the Flannel Nightgown (1965).
Rev. Lily Connor is a “tentmaker,” an ordained minister who, like the Apostle Paul, works at a trade outside the church, often in addition to church duties. Rev. Connor is the creation of Michelle Blake, who teaches in the English Dept. at Tufts University and lives near Boston. Blake earned a Master of Theological Studies at Harvard and considered becoming an Episcopal Priest herself.Connor is a theological liberal, trying to make sense of faith and God in our complex post-modern world. She has her share of hang-ups and problems. This makes her a character with which many readers can identify, but it comes close at times to not taking her identity as a priest seriously.
- The Tentmaker (1999). Lily is called to be an interim pastor and ends up solving the murder of her predecessor.
- Earth Has No Sorrow(2001). Lily is working for a Women’s Center and the plot involves explorations of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in Christian churches.
- The Book of Light (2003). Lily is now a campus chaplain at “Tate” University, a fictional counterpart to Tufts, where the author works. Her relationship with a police photographer is not one that we would tolerate in a male minister and the plot has WAY too many Da Vinci Code overtones for my taste, but Lily remains an interesting protagonist.
Christina Summers, who has taught English and worked in churches, has B.A. in English from Vassar, an MDiv. from the (Episcopal) General Theological Seminary, and an MPhil in Medieval English studies from Oxford. Her priest/sleuth creation is The Rev. Dr. Kathryn Koerney, a divorced Episcopal priest who is based at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Harton, NJ, a parish in which “everyone seemed to have either money or brains,” but apparently not both. The fictional church is modeled after Trinity Church in Princeton, which is the real counterpart to Harton. Koerney isn’t in an illicit affair, but seems to hover at the edges of it, since she helps solve crimes with a police chief who is in an unhappy marriage–and finds him very attractive. Again, while I find the nearly sinless Fr. Brown to be boring, I am troubled that these interesting fictional female priests are not being held to the same standards of sexual ethics we would demand of their male counterparts. This is just the opposite of my experience in real life, where I find that male ministers get away with far too much that would have resulted in the firing or even defrocking of female counterparts LOONG before.
- Crooked Heart (2002). Characters are interesting, but the plot is somewhat slow.
- Thieves Break In (2004). Time and place changes are abrupt and complicated.
- Familiar Friend (2006). The murder is complicated by an unresolved three-way love affair.
Carol Fosher Chase, an ex-pat American become a British citizen, writes under the pen name of Kate Charles. She has created an engaging priest/sleuth, The Revd. Callie Anson, newly arrived curate of All Saints’ Church in Paddington, London (a fictional counterpart to All Souls’ Church?). Callie, aged 30, has just broken up with her fiance, Adam, who, awkwardly, is now a curate in the same diocese. (Oy!) She has a very demanding mother who is never satisfied with her and a brother who is happy as an out gay man and whose company she loves. Peter, the brother, first called her “Callie,” as a child when he could not pronounce her given name of Caroline. These mysteries are very well grounded in the politics of the Church of England (or so my ecumenical contacts tell me–it’s been over a decade since I was in the UK and I was exploring British BAPTIST life!), but this might be confusing to some American readers. Oddly, Callie doesn’t seem to do much of the detecting in these mysteries, though, in all other ways, she’s the protagonist. That might be more realistic (Honestly, have you ever met even ONE clergy detective?), but it seems to buck the nature of the genre.
- Evil Intent (2005).
- Secret Sins (2007).
Fictional Protestant Ministers Who Solve Crimes.
Charles Merrill Smith (?-1985) was a liberal United Methodist minister and created a sleuth in that image, Rev. C. P. Randollph. Randollph is an ex-football quarterback (nicknamed “Con Randollph” by the sportswriters for the way he could fool defensive lines) who quit professional sports to enroll in seminary and eventually become a church historian and then, for our reading pleasure, Senior Minister of the Chicago Methodist Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. This large, wealthy, parish is located on the bottom floors of a large office block skyscraper that includes a hotel but comes complete with a gothic spire on top and an octagonal parsonage directly below. The Church owns the entire building and gets much of its income from the rent from the various secular businesses. When I read a few of these novels in the ’70s, I assumed that this was Smith’s sarcastic depiction of the horrible mega-church phenomenon. Sadly, no. It is based on a real parish: Chicago Temple, First United Methodist Church of Chicago. Sigh.
The character of Randollph is too upper-middle class for my tastes and his parish too obscenely wealthy. Further, Randolph’s theology seems to be nothing but the “cheap liberalism” (there are other kinds) of much of the white Protestantism of the late ’60s and early ’70s. You read these novels and find out more about what Randolph doesn’t believe than what he does. (It would be hilarious to have a C. P. Randollph meet a theologian like Stanley Hauerwas and watch the fur fly!) What makes Randollph a good detective is his apparently Niebuhrian/Augustinian view of sin and human nature, but he seems jaded to me. Both the social activists and the fundamentalists are portrayed more sympathetically in some stories. I seem to remember liking these books more when I was younger, but I suspect my distaste now is a sign of age or something.
- Reverend Randollph and the Wages of Sin (1974).
- Reverend Randollph and the Avenging Angel (1976).
- Reverend Randollph and the Fall From Grace, Inc. (1978).
- Reverend Randollph and the Holy Terror (1980).
- Reverend Randollph and the Unholy Bible (1983).
- Reverend Randollph and the Splendid Samaritan(1986). Finished posthumously by son Terence Smith.
The Rev. Raymond Sebastian is a rare example of a clergy detective who comes from the American conservative white evangelical context. Once again, it is an example of authors writing what they know. Sebastian is the creation of James L. Johnson (1927-1987), who attended Moody Bible Institute before going to Nigeria as a missionary. He eventually edited the evangelical magazine Africa Challenge and later earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Michigan. His creation, Rev. Sebastian, “always considered himself a poor excuse” for a minister. He had lost his wife 5 years before in an auto wreck for which he blamed himself. He attributed his ready acceptance in church circles to his father, “the most famous Bible expositor in America.” Pulpit committees lined up to interview and hire him without ever hearing him preach, examining his doctrine, etc. simply on the basis of his famous last name. (Readers: If you think this doesn’t happen–and not just in white evangelical circles–you are quite naive about church politics!) And so, he becomes the unhappy minister of an evangelical church in Nashville, WI. (Denomination never revealed.) Sebastian is sincere, but not very gifted at ministry. However, he ends up finding an unexpected talent at solving mysteries. The books are fun and, while not preachy, respectful of the conservative evangelical context. Sebastian, however, seems to become a kind of secret agent.
- Code Name Sebastian (1967).
- The Nine Lives of Alphonse (1968).
- A Handful of Dominoes (1970).
- A Piece of the Moon is Missing (1974). I haven’t read this one, but the plot is highly unlikely.
- The Last Train from Canton (1981).
- Trackless Seas(1987). Sebastian has been defrocked because his denomination has, finally, concluded that his clandestine work over the years was not in keeping with his ordination vows.
Rev. Calvin Truman Turkstra, whose adventures I have NOT read, is also from the American evangelical camp, but in the Christian Reformed sub-culture–a transplanted Dutch Calvinism that thrives in the U.S. Midwest, especially Michigan. Author Christopher Meehan came from this background and also was a reporter for a newspaper in Grand Rapids, MI–the Mecca of American Dutch Calvinism! Rev. Turkstra has a love/hate relationship with his Dutch Calvinism. He has outward signs of rebellion (e.g., long hair, Rolling Stones T-shirts, etc.), but is not overly rebellious of the ethical and theological culture of the denomination. I plan on investigating the novels.
- Deadly Waters (1995).
- Murder on the Grand (1997).
- Murder on Sacred Ground (2006).
Michael Lister was a chaplain at the Florida State Prison for 7 years before turning to writing full time in 2000. Having read the Father Brown mysteries, he decided to create a prison chaplain sleuth and did so with John Jordan. Jordan is an ex-cop turned minister who was hounded out of his Atlanta parish (and his marriage) by accusations of sexual misconduct. He’s now a recovering alcoholic and his ability to resist the temptation to drink keeps him believing in God. He is now a prison chaplain and, like the author, resists organized religion, but has a strong vocation to minister to the abandoned and forgotten. I have not read these mysteries and they are supposed to include graphic violence–not for young readers or those with weak stomachs.
- Power in the Blood (1997).
- Blood of the Lamb (2004).
- Flesh and Blood (2006). This one is a collection of short stories.
P. L. Gaus, an Amishlieben or friend of the Amish, has written a series of mysteries set in Ohio Amish country. They have as their protagonist, Pastor Caleb Troyer, an Amish-descended pastor of an independent Church of Christ in the sleepy college town of Millersburg, OH. These sound worthy of investigation and I hope to make time to read them in the near future.
- Blood of the Prodigal (1999).
- Broken English (2000).
- Clouds Without Rain (2001).
- Cast a Blue Shadow (2003). This description to an outsider rings true to any who have tried to sort out the Amish/Mennonite strands: “at the simplest level, and this wouldn’t be at all considered to be a thorough listing, we have the most conservative Old Order Amish, what you might call house Amish, then Beachy Amish, Church Amish, Swiss Mennonites, Old Mennonites, Wisler Mennonites, Mennonites , New Amish or Apostolic Christian, Reformed Mennonites, and, most liberal, Oak Grove Mennonites up in Wayne County …. It’d take a trained sociologist years to sort out the differences, and then it’d probably be wrong … Other Amish groups have split over things as little as putting a side glass window in a buggy.” It almost makes Baptist splits seem kind of tame, by comparison!
Other “Clerical” Detectives:
Elizabeth Eliott is an elderly Clerk of an unprogrammed Friends (Quaker) Meeting in Cambridge, MA. She is the creation of Irene Allen, the pen-name of Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a Geologist and herself a practising Quaker. Historical note: The Friends/Quaker tradition founded by George Fox and Margaret Fell in the mid-1600s (“There is One who Speaketh to Thy Condition, Even Jesus Christ!”) splintered, especially in the U.S., in the 19th C. The Hicksite or Liberal Friends are the most traditional in form of worship and church order and in traditional ethical and lifestyle commitments: “Church” is a name reserved for the universal gathering of Christians. Instead, Friends gather at Weekly, Monthly, and Yearly Meetings. There are no ordained or paid clergy (something that some Baptists would have agreed with; Roger Williams’ The Hireling Ministry None of Christ’s!comes to mind and it was written during the same period that the early Quakers arose). Every member is to be a minister and an evangelist or “publisher of Truth.” Meetings for Worship are conducted in silence until someone is moved by the Light Within to speak a word or sing a hymn, etc.–something that may not happen for the whole time of worship. Since all of life is sacramental, the sacraments/ordinances have been completely spiritualized, i.e., there is no observance of water baptism or the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper. But this group, though the most traditional in Quaker form, has largely lost the Christocentric shape of George Fox’s faith–with many Weekly Meetings devolved into a kind of Unitarianism. Evangelical Friends, by contrast, have pastors and orders of service very like other evangelical congregations, including hymn singing and sermons. The only thing “Quaker” about them is that the outward forms of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are considered optional. Somewhere in the Middle is the Wilberite or Conservative Friends tradition which has both programmed and unprogrammed Meetings, but tries to retain the historic Christocentrism of Fox and the early Quakers. Ironically, the more liberal, unprogrammed Meetings have most strongly retained the historic Quaker commitment to nonviolence and pacifism, while this gets downplayed or even resisted in the (supposedly more biblically oriented) Evangelical Friends! Elizabeth Elliot comes from the unprogrammed tradition and her local meeting is probably related to New England Yearly Meeting, though this is never explicitly stated. Her skill at detecting is linked to her deep Quaker awareness that violence and deception are related intimately as are truth and nonviolence. These are fun books, and Elliot is a fascinating character, but, one of great moral seriousness without being preachy.
- Quaker Silence (1992).
- Quaker Witness (1993).
- Quaker Testimony (1996).
- Quaker Indictment (1998).
Sister Rose Callahan is the fictional Shaker Eldress creation of Deborah Woodworth, a sociologist of religion who has deeply researched the Shaker movement. Only one living Shaker community remains. It is in Maine and dying out. However, the fictional Sister Rose has a Shaker community in rural Kentucky. (Shakertown, KY is just a tourist attraction these days.) The Shaker movement arose in the 19th C. It was an earlier form of Pentecostalism. In some ways it was very “modern,” with an emphasis on gender equality and nonviolence and even feminine imagery for God to complement masculine imagery for God. But Shakers thought all Christians ought to be celibate. The men and women stayed in separate communal homes, but ate meals together. They adopted abandoned children, but to have survived as a living option, they would have had to be far more aggressively evangelistic–or else believed in sex and procreation! I have not read these novels, yet.
- Death of a Winter Shaker (1997), set in 1936 in rural Kentucky.
- A Deadly Shaker Spring (1998).
- Sins of a Shaker Summer(1999).
- A Simple Shaker Murder (2000).
- Killing Gifts (2001).
- Dancing Dead (2002).
Well, I hope you have enjoyed these posts, Gentle Readers, as breaks from blogging about religion and politics.
I have been asked what I am writing since I told people that I started a book during my blogging hiatus. Well, I have outlined 3 books. One is a book on biblical interpretation and Christian ethics. A second, which I am working on the hardest and hope to have published by 2009 (why ’09 in another post) is a book on progressive, peace and justice, Baptist churches–profiling 20 of them. But, I have also outlined a detective novel.
Yes, I have decided to try my hand at the genre. I would like to see something about a Latino Pentecostal minister or an African-American woman Lutheran minister, etc., but I must write about what I know. My sleuth will be a white, male Baptist minister (Yes, my wife and my pastor are both female Baptist ministers, but I hope to write 1st person and I don’t think I am good enough at writing fiction yet to try a female perspective). He will be younger than I am and educated in the post-SBC diaspora of non-fundamentalist Baptist education in the South. He will be center-left in theology and progressive in political outlook with a deep concern for peace and social justice. I will set the stories in Neptune Beach, Florida (one of the Jacksonville Beaches) because I don’t want to set them in Louisville, and that’s the only other place I have lived long enough to describe really well. He’ll be newly arrived in a small congregation, just planted, of the Alliance of Baptists, that is still meeting at the local synagogue (which, naturally, doesn’t need the building on Sundays). He’ll be single at the beginning and have broken up with a fiancee. He will be working on his dissertation for a Ph.D. in Church History, concentrating on Richard Overton and the Levellers. 🙂 Soon after arriving, a woman in a bikini will be found murdered in his office and soon a prominent member of the church will become the prime suspect for the police. I hope you’re intrigued!
Last November, after JoBloggs did an excellent guest post on “must read detective fiction for theologians” at Faith and Theology, I wrote a couple of posts generally related to this topic, because I have long been a fan of the genre. My first post gathered together some long-time reflections I had on Columbo as a “class warrior,” the working stiff’s detective taking on the rich and powerful. I also gave brief thoughts on fictional clergy detectives.
But now I want to express my delight that Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgwick) will be returning for a third season on TNT’s hit series, The Closer. I have never liked the typical female detective, Nancy Drew, Miss Jane Marple, or Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote. I wanted to see female detectives who were stronger, more powerful characters, like Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, a Chicago Private Eye who is as tough as Mike Hammer or Sam Spade or Robert Parker’s Spenser for Hire, and smarter than any of them to boot.
Kyra Sedgwick gives us that in Brenda Lee Johnson. Trained in interrogation by the C.I.A., this Atlanta detective is brought into the Los Angeles Police Department to head their new Priority Homicide Unit–thereby alienating everyone who expected to be promoted from within the department and who resent being shown up by a Southern belle with an edge. What a fantastic and complicated character: brilliant at her job, but lacking in the people skills necessary to negotiate office politics, and barely competent at personal relations outside the job. Her Southern upbringing teaches her to be polite, but her constant “pleases” and “thank-yous” fail to disguise her ruthlessness and her pit-bull approach to problems, steamrolling whatever and whomever gets in her way. Addicted to sweets, especially chocolates, she worries about her weight (despite being thin–probably as a result of extremely nervous energy), carries an enormous handbag, and is a deadly shot. Her specialty is getting confessions during extremely tricky interrogations, and she hates to go into interrogation without already knowing all the answers to her questions. She speaks 6 languages fluently, but, then she gets this new post in L.A.–and none of her languages is Spanish. Initially she can’t find her way around the city.
In a previous job with the CIA, she had an affair with her current (married) boss (played wonderfully by J.K. Simmons, minus the flat-top hair piece he uses to be J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman movies), but she refuses all attempts to rekindle the relationship. Instead, she has a rocky romance with an FBI agent in L.A. Meanwhile, her boss has to put up with her insubordination and the way her lack of people skills keeps getting him in political trouble–every time she solves another case.
Although Brenda Lee Johnson is clearly the top detective in the series, there is a great ensemble cast. I’ve already mentioned J. K. Simmons as Assistant Police Chief Will Pope, L.A.P.D., a former CIA analyst who is now twice divorced and is a very hassled senior bureacrat. Robert Gossett plays Commander (just promoted from Captain) Taylor, the head of L.A.P.D.’s Robbery-Homicide Department. An able, and highly ambitious, African-American man who worked his way up through the ranks, he was passed over to head the Priority Homicide Unit and resents Deputy Chief Johnson as the “outsider from Atlanta” who has the job he believes should have been his. (Taylor fails to see why he was passed over. He is excellent as head of Robbery-Homicide because knows how to clear the massive numbers of routine robberies and homicides. But lacks the ability to focus on what makes certain homicides priority and high profile–and he doesn’t want to take the time to give such cases the detail they need. Also, his skill at office politics–strong where Brenda is weak–means that he is more likely to avoid conflict with other departments even when should risk conflict for the sake of the case.) He works to undermine her at every opportunity and has repeatedly tried to get her fired.
Tony Denison plays Lt. Andy Flynn, who was initially loyal to Taylor, but who was gradually won over to Deputy Chief Johnson when he realized she rewards good performance in spite of personality conflicts, while Taylor was about to let him become a political scapegoat. (When Johnson expresses surprise at Flynn’s new loyalty since he has “never said one complimentary thing” to her since her arrival, Flynn replies, “You have great legs, Chief!” In a forgiving mood, Johnson does NOT have Flynn brought up on sexual harassment charges. 🙂 )
Gina Rivera plays Detective Irene Daniels, the only other woman on the Priority Homicide squad. An extremely attractive African-American woman, she understands only too well the minefield that Deputy Chief Johnson has to negotiate. She has to bond with men who often pay more attention to her looks than her brains and earn their respect, but she also has to negotiate the ever-present politics of race. Paul Chen plays Lt. Mike Tao, a Chinese-American, and (somewhat stereotypically) the highly educated squad expert on electronics and technology.
G.W. Bailey plays Lt. Provenza, the “old-school” veteran cop of the squad who has seen it all. His dedication to the job has seen him divorced 4 times (twice from the same woman), and he barely tolerates the members of the squad with better education but less experience. Raymond Cruz plays Detective Julio Sanchez, a Mexican-American born and raised in L.A. and an expert in Latino gangs. He is quick tempered and chauvenistic and somewhat homophobic (he hated having to pose as a gay man in order to investigate one suspect), but his bi-lingual skills are essential–at least until Deputy Chief Johnson has a chance to add Spanish to her list of languages. Sanchez was also the first of the Priority Homicide Squad to rally behind their new head instead requesting transfer back to Robbery-Homicide–probably because he knows what it means to be considered an outsider.
Detective Sergeant David Gabriel, played by Corey Reynolds, is a young, bright, ambitious African-American (called “college boy” by Provenza). He started out a uniform cop, quickly made detective at Robbery-Homicide and, encouraged by then-Captain Taylor, earned an M.A. in Communications from U.C.L.A–with eyes to rising very far in the L.A.P.D. ranks. The only person initially polite to Deputy Chief Johnson when she first arrived from Atlanta, Gabriel at first still wanted to transfer back to Robbery-Homicide, but Commander Taylor’s constant attempts to undermine Johnson’s work have caused Sergeant Gabriel to lose respect for him. Johnson has taken the young sergeant under her wing, giving him lessons in interrogation and investigation–to the resentment of other squad members who consider him a suck-up.
Completing the ensemble is Jon Tenney as F.B.I. Special Agent Fritz Howard, who is currently co-habitating with Deputy Chief Johnson. Since her relationships with others in the L.A. branch of the F.B.I. have not always been cordial, their relationship has caused Special Agent Howard some career difficulties. He humanizes Chief Johnson and gives her something to think about other than a narrow focus on the job. He is also remarkably long-suffering–moving out and keeping his household goods in a U-Haul while Johnson’s mother was visiting from Atlanta so that she would not know they were living together. (Mom, herself an astute observer and capable of adding up evidence, wasn’t fooled.)
Here is a great detective and an excellent drama well-acted by all concerned. This is a feminist role, and one that shows the complications of sexual politics for professional women, today. (After all, many of the characteristics that colleagues find annoying in Deputy Chief Johnson, they admire in male colleagues.) Here is detective fiction that goes beyond all the “Crime Scene” clones or the endless spinoffs of Law and Order. Here is a detective as brilliant as P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, whose idiosyncracies (unlike Columbo’s) don’t disguise her intelligence, nor make her seem wildly unbelievable (like Tony Shalub’s Adrian Monk, who has more neuroses than an entire mental health clinic’s population). She seems both likeable (unless you have to work with her) and believable.
There is absolutely no doubt as to why Sedgwick has won a Golden Globe for this role. And this Southerner is very impressed with the way a native New Yorker has mastered a Georgian accent. (British and Aussie actors often do very well with American accents thanks to voice coaches. But for some reason, most Yankee actors are terrible with Southern accents. Sedgwick even understands the difference between a patrician Georgian accent, which her character has, and working class, “redneck” Georgian accents, which Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson would NEVER use.)
Now, to all those who are returning The Closer to us, I give a heart-felt, “Thank-yew. Thank-yew very much!”
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.
Although there have been recent articles on the theological implications of detective fiction, my interest here is elsewhere. Detective fiction, as many have noted, reaffirms the concept of a moral universe where evildoers do NOT “get away with it,” but some level of truth and justice prevail. Yet many fictional detectives are symbols of, or seem to reinforce, a status quo of social stratification. Many fictional detectives are wealthy, for instance. Some are wealthy amateurs and dilettantes who solve crimes to avoid boredom: Nick and Nora Charles of the “Thin Man” stories; “Hart to Hart;” Sir Peter Whimsey, etc. Others earn enormous fees for their work as detectives: Nero Wolfe; Sherlock Holmes (although both also do pro bono work when particular cases strike their fancy); Hercule Poirot; legal sleuth Perry Mason; Robert Parker’s “Spencer for Hire,” etc.
Working class private investigators do abound in some parts of detective fiction, but they are often shady characters who bend the law and are trying to get rich as much as pursue justice: e.g., Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Spencer (who hangs around with “Hawk,” a hit-man for hire!), Rockford (who seems to have left the police department because he took too many “shortcuts” in law enforcement).
[CORRECTION: It’s been too long since I saw the old “Rockford Files.” Jim Rockford was never a cop, but an ex-con–falsely imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, of course. Clearing his name led to his becoming a private investigator. His past was why, with a few “buddy” exceptions, he was even less liked by the police than most p.i.s. It may also explain why he usually kept his revolver in an unused coffee pot or cookie jar and seldom took it with him. After all, how could an ex-con, even one later exonerated, obtain a license to own a handgun?]
Sara Paretsky’s hard-hitting female Chicago p.i., V. I. Warshawski, has more ethics than many, but isn’t above breaking laws when it suits her, either. [BTW, I’m glad to see female sleuths break out of the “Miss Jane Marple” mode, but so far ONLY V. I. Warshawski can hold her own with the big boys. She is easily the equal of any of the “tough as nails” fictional male p.i.s, and smarter than most of them. We have, yet, however, to see the female version of a Holmes, Wolfe, or Perot.]
By contrast, Columbo is just a police officer who came up through the ranks: his constant search for good (but affordable) footwear a testimony to his past as a flatfoot walking a beat. Despite an incredible arrest and conviction record, he will never rise above the rank of lieutenant because he lacks the social skills for dealing with elites required of higher ranks. (This in contrast to P.D. James’ British sleuth, Adam Dalgliesh, whose father was a priest in the Church of England, who went to Oxford, publishes volumes of poetry, etc.) And he enters the world of elites only when investigating murder–a persistent, annoying presence who will not respect the elite criminal’s sense of entitlement–that they deserve, somehow, to get away with it all.
Columbo’s many trademark idiosyncrasieses are not just “comic relief,” but working-class defense mechanisms designed to make the rich elite adversaries discount him, lower their defenses, and walk into his traps. The rumpled, dirty raincoat; the aging, broken-down Peugeot, the basset-hound named “Dog,” the unkempt hair, are all part of a persona that deceives the deceivers, reinforcing their prejudices about working class folks (including the prejudice about supposed lack of intelligence) and setting them up for a fall. The cigar has only recently come back into elite society as a vice. For most of Columbo’s career, his trademark cigar and coffee were working class vices–as opposed to Holmes’ heroine addiction or Wolfe’s imported beers and his overeating of gourmet meals. Columbo is usually extremely polite, even obsequious to his suspects: He asks them for help, pleads ignorance, only asks these annoying questions for “his report” (blaming superior officers for being “sticklers for details”)gets them involved in the investigation in ways that will trip them up.
Thus, while a Hercule Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe will try to impress others with their brilliance, Columbo seldom takes credit for discovering clues or inductive reasoning: One of his many, faceless, nameless relatives just happens to be an expert in such an area and told him thus and so and what does the suspect think of that? (In an interview, Peter Falk, who played Columbo brilliantly, expressed his opinion that Columbo was really married, but did not have as many nephews, etc. as he claimed. The Columbos, for some reason, apparently never had children, either.)
But Columbo is actually not only brilliant, but far more sophisticated than he lets on: He walked into one case made to look like an art burglary and immediately knew that the pieces “taken” were much less valuable than what was left in easy reach–long before lugging an oversize book on art around with him in the investigation. In other cases, he has shown himself fairly “up to date” with many different styles of music, from classical to pop/rock, to country gospel. (The latter was an episode with Johnny Cash as a murderous musician who had been extorted by his evangelist-wife into becoming a gospel singer whose profits all went back into gospel ministry. Again, Columbo diverted attention away from himself: His never-seen wife had all Cash’s albums and listened to them constantly.)
Even the fact that we don’t know his first name, or his wife’s, is more than comic relief. It is part of a deliberate strategy by working class (especially African-American or, in Columbo’s case, immigrant) folk to make the upper classes treat them with respect. In the “normal” case, the elites expect always to be called by their titles, but they call their servants and social “inferiors” by their first names. So, Columbo when asked gives his “first name” as “Lieutenant,” and his wife’s as “Mrs. Columbo.” The elites are forced to give titles of respect whether they will or not. (James Cone, the African-American liberation theologian, relates in his autobiographical My Soul Looks Back that, during segregation, his minister father would never introduce his mother to white people as anything other than “Mrs. Cone” so that they were forced to treat her with at least that much respect.) But Columbo does it in such a way that the elites just think him odd rather than “uppity.” After all, he wants them to humor him as long as he can get them to do so, so that he is well on his way toward proving their guilt before they realize how close he is and stop cooperating.
There are indications that Columbo is a practicing Christian–probably Catholic since he makes much of his Italian heritage, but this is never stated for certain and we don’t find Columbo with a rosary or crossing himself or other giveaways. But in one case he is summoned directly from church on a Sunday (one of the few times he arrives on a crime scene dressed better than his usual rumpled suit and dirty raincoat). In another, he refuses to use the name of Jesus in vain, not even to quote the supposed dying words of a victim. (The suspect was actually making up this “quote,” including the epithet, “Oh, Jesus!” Columbo dutifully records this, but he won’t utter the blasphemy himself.) He is familiar with the music of a popular country-gospel singer, as mentioned above. But all we get are hints because of Columbo’s intense privacy about his life off-duty. The many things related about his family’s supposed interests are all just ways to get at a case and they happen “off camera.” We never see Columbo at home.
But although there are hints that Columbo is definitely a Christian, his faith is very low key. He tries to make no judgments about the outrageously corrupt lifestyles of his elitist suspects (“I’m just a policeman,” he says more than once.). He blushes at a “Playboy” style mansion headquarters of a skin magazine and in the offices of a group of sex therapists, but is matter of fact about the nature of illicit affairs when he comes across them. He doesn’t preach at his suspects and let’s them think his morals “quaint,” (but he doesn’t change to fit their views, either), but his work exposes the flaws in their spoiled, rich, elitist lives and brings them down when their hubris leads to murder.
My point? Not a large one. I am not claiming that Columbo is a socialist, nor that his attitudes are “right.” He is a fictional character. I like that character so much, I suspect, because I also come from the working class–and, since (temporary?) setback from an academic career, I have returned to that class and have a union job as my parents and grandparents. There is, however, I suggest, a social commentary in the Columbo character and TV movies, viz., that the elite upper classes are morally suspect, morally weaker than this working class detective. It is a point of view that I, raised working class but having moved in circles of professional elites, especially academic elites, largely share. I love mysteries and detective fiction–a wide range of it. But I identify with Columbo. I know his working class world and share it. I stand in awe of the brilliance of a Holmes, a Poirot, a Nero Wolfe. But of Columbo, I feel almost a possessiveness–a sense of “he’s one of us” taking the elites down a peg.