Clerical mysteries

Special Issue | The greatest mystery is why the genre's minister-detectives are so liberal

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

Here's what I'm reading this summer: a few books about infanticide in colonial Virginia; some commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew; a history of salt; and a whole lot of mysteries.

There's something satisfying about a mystery. Wrongdoers are punished, order prevails. As J. I. Packer once observed, mysteries "would never have existed without the Christian gospel. Culturally, they are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what Tolkein called a eucatastrophe-whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong. . . . The gospel of Christ is the archetype of all such stories. Paganism unleavened by Christianity, on the other hand, was and always will be pessimistic at heart."

My favorites are clerical mysteries. You've heard of police procedurals-mysteries where the detective is, naturally enough, a cop, who comes into contact with corpses and catches culprits as part of his regular, salaried work-week. Clerical mysteries, by contrast, are those mysteries in which the hero, the detective, is a pastor or priest. (Should the same cleric figure over and over again in a series, the author must ingeniously explain why the non-cop keeps stumbling over dead bodies . . . but, then, death dogs the clergy almost as much as it dogs cops.)

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Since G.K. Chesterton gave us Father Brown, the majority of clerical mysteries have been set in Catholic or Anglican communities. There are, of course, exceptions-Charles Merrill Smith's Reverend Randolph is a Methodist, for instance-but in the main clerical detectives seem to emerge from liturgical churches: Vicar Westerham is the Anglican hero of five mysteries by V.L. Whitechurch; Margaret Scherf's Father Buell is Episcopalian, as is Isabelle Holland's Rev. Dr. Claire Aldington; H.H. Holmes' Sister Ursula, Leonard Holton's Father Bredder, Ralph McInerny's Father Dowling, Carol Anne O'Marie's Sister Mary Helen, and, of course, Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael are all Catholic. This liturgical trend is, perhaps, understandable. Maybe the reverence for and emphasis on liturgical and theological mystery in liturgical Christianity lends itself to an interest in fictional mystery. But it is by no means a given. I'd be all over a mystery series whose lay-detective was a PCA pastor.

The last few years have seen a sudden spurt of clerical mysteries-in particular, mysteries presided over by female Episcopal priests. Just a few weeks ago, for example, To Darkness and to Death, the fourth installment of Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson mysteries was published. The Rev. Fergusson is an army pilot turned Episcopal priest, and she serves a small parish in Miller's Kill, New York. ("Kill" is an old Dutch term for "shallow river," but, of course, it makes a nice foreshadowing sort of pun, for an awful lot of murder befalls the small Miller's Kill community.)

I love the books in this series. They are uniformly clever, surprising, and utterly engrossing. I'm enchanted by the local color (I never thought I'd dream about moving to upstate New York, but this series has sparked a certain fantasy). I want Clare Fergusson to teach me to cook (like many clerical detectives, she's quite the gourmand), and, frankly, I think she'd be a fun friend.

But I have begun to grow tired of the theology that infuses Ms. Spencer-Fleming's novels, and many of the other contemporary clerical mysteries I read.

You should know that, in general, I do not evaluate fiction principally by theological or ideological litmus tests. I have never believed that novels have the same function as tracts or Sunday school curricula, and I have enjoyed, and been edified by, novels born in just about every ideological and theological context imaginable. But perhaps the cavalierly liberal Episcopalianism in these recent mysteries hits too close to home. Can't the Episcopal Church approach orthodoxy even in fiction?

Let's start with the observation that several Episcopal priest heroines seem to have fallen for married men. There's been no out-and-out adulterous sex (yet) in any of the mysteries I've read, but there's been some smooching, some emoting, and some fantasizing. Indeed, as Betty Smartt Carter has noted in a recent essay in the Christian Century, the female-cleric-falls-for-married-cop is becoming something of a topos in contemporary clerical mysteries.

Kathryn Koerney, rector of an Episcopal Church in New Jersey, is the heroine of Cristina Sumners' Divine Mystery series (the first, Crooked Heart, is excellent-a taut, riveting read with an utterly surprising climax and conclusion; the second, Thieves Break In, is a little less taut and riveting). Kathryn finds herself attracted to Tom, a local policeman who attends her church; for his part, Tom's marriage is desiccated, and he is totally smitten with the comely Kathryn.


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