Ecclesiastical Whodunnits

There’s been a wee discussion, which has turned into quite a long discussion, over on Facebook about the books clergy read when they are relaxing. Not just clergy, of course, although I do find it rather amusing that the murder genre is enjoyed by so many clergy…  Anyone with a vague fascination with church matters can enjoy a good ecclesiastical whodunnit. And it doesn’t have to be contemporary tales of churchy matters either, we are not averse to reading mediaeval murder either.

Penelopepiscopal over on her blog has been listing the ones she has enjoyed and recommends. So I thought I’d do the same for the UK readers.

For me, reading churchy books all began with the Susan Howatch series: Glittering Images; Glamorous Powers; etc. I was given the first one not long after I joined the church and although they are not really whodunnits, as such, they do look at the politics and power of ecclesiastical matters. I loved them so much that I couldn’t wait for the next book to come out in paperback and my shelves do hold one or two in hardback. My idea of heaven would be to have the time to re-read them all one after the other.  If I remember correctly, they begin with the Church of England at the beginning of the last century and work up to the present date with the St Benet’s Trilogy. There is no denying that Susan Howatch knows the Church. Actually I miss them and would love another, if you’re reading this Ms Howatch…

I think the first of the ecclesiastical whodunnits I read were by Kate Charles. I stumbled across her books in Waterstones one rainy afternoon and began the Clerical Mysteries with A Drink of Deadly Wine. Each book stands alone as a mystery but it is better to read them in order as the ‘detectives’ develop a relationship. Again, this is an author who knows ‘church’ and I remember reading the first one and thinking she must have visited St Michael & All Saints at some point in her life! How did she know our organist and flower arrangers so well? Of course, now that I’ve been round the ecclesiastical block a few times, as it were, you realise that there is a heavenly mould somewhere which produces such gorgeous creatures. Kate Charles went on to create the Callie Anson mysteries, the hero being a priest who happens to be a woman. Some are out of print now but you can get them secondhand on Amazon and others are available on Kindle. Highly recommended.

Andrew Greeley was my next find, but in the library only because you couldn’t buy his books over here. I voraciously read the Blackie Ryan series and enjoyed them hugely. Now I see that he is still writing ecclesiastical fiction and I may have to rediscover the joys therein. (These are of the RC variety.)

Next there was a series by Jan Karon, also American, which I think I came across in a rather evangelical bookshop in Edinburgh’s George Street. The series was called The Mitford Years and although there weren’t many murders it did tell the story of a priest in a small town and the charming people he meets. These are schmaltzy and romantic but fun. I see there is a Father Tim series so maybe that’ll go on the wishlist.

Back to murder now with the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne. I’ve not read all of these, nor in order, but there was a time when I was scouring church booksales for more in the series. The author is an expert on the ancient Celts and Irish history so it is no surprise to find that Sister Fidelma lives in the 6th century and works within the Brehon law system (when women actually had a prominent role in the church). Lots of monks and nuns and murder abound as the clever Sister travels with her friend Brother Eadulf. Great escapism and you might learn something about ecclesiastical history in the process.

There were some other medieval murder mysteries by Susanna Gregory and Pip Vaughan-Hughes, and Ellis Peters and Umberto Ecco are perhaps too obvious to mention.

I read one or two of the Theodore Braithwaite books by DM Greenwood but I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember whether they were any good or not.

Sacred Hearts was the first of the Sister Agnes stories which I enjoyed. Sister Agnes is a nun like no other, in that she had a private income, if I remember correctly, and was allowed to live outwith the mother-house and go gadding about solving crimes. (I imagine she enjoyed Lladro china as well and wore silk scarves which she could cast down with a tea light or two and create something mystical and meditative.)

In the Church Times I came across a review of a first novel by Anne Borrowdale and then read Messiahs Don’t Fly and No Perfect Priest. It was a while ago now but I do remember enjoying them. Lots of clergy angst and temptation in these.

And then I discovered Phil Rickman Merrily Watkins series in Borders book shop and for the next few years my life was full and overflowing with ecclesiastical whodunnits galore. Who could fail to enjoy reading about a heroine who is an Anglican priest, single-parent of troublesome child, smoker of Silk Cut, who becomes the Diocesan Exorcist? What’s not to love? (And they are being Kindled as I write this.) I have read a couple of his other books which are mostly mysteries at Glastonbury and didn’t enjoy them so much.

At this point someone in my little flock who shared a taste for murder at the Mass, told me of this website Clerical Detectives. Oh my word! This was heavenly ambrosia for an addict like myself. Here was me thinking I’d managed to source a pretty impressive list of clerical whodunnits and there were tons more! Enough to keep me going for the rest of my life, I reckon.

The same person introduced me to Priscilla Royal’s mediaeval mystery Wine of Violence which was good in that it combined mediaeval church and a woman abbess with lots of power. A great combination in my book.

Then I moved on to the Michelle Blake books starring another Episcopal priest, Lily Connor, this time on the other side of the pond. I really enjoyed these although I had to wait ages for them to come via Amazon in the USA and secondhand.

From there I moved on the Rev Clare books by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Its been a while since I read these and I don’t think I’ve read them all, but I seem to remember another Episcopal priest and a friendly policeman and I think they finally got it together. She did seem to take alarming risks too, but all good escapism.

I don’t remember who recommended The Liturgical Mysteries (always nice for a change from clerical or ecclesiastical): The Alto Wore Tweed by Mark Schweizer. This was really funny but rather expensive so the only one I’ve read. However, I see some of them have been Kindled so another one for the Amazon Wish List.

And I recently read Donna Fletcher Crow’s A Very Private Grave which features an ordinand in the Anglo-Catholic college of the Transfiguration in Yorkshire and a trip to Lindisfarne and Durham with some dead bodies on the way. Another winner! (And it says Book 1 of the Monastery Murders so one must presume there are more to come.)

In between I’ve read one or two of the C J Sansom Matthew Shardlake books but unfortunately because the covers all look so similar I forget which ones. This time the setting is Tudor England and these are long books. Really long. Lots of history in them too if you like that kind of thing.

So there we have it. Enough ecclesiastical books to keep you going for a long time. You need never read a non-churchy book ever again, in fact. These may seem like harmless escapist fun but in actual fact you can learn a lot about the church from these little gems. And as always, you learn a lot about people – in particular church people, and that’s never a bad thing.

I’m sure I’ve read lots more which have escaped my memory for now. Interestingly enough, I do have a copy of the Father Brown Stories but have never read it. Perhaps you’d like to add your own favourites? And if anyone wants to borrow any of the above…

15 thoughts on “Ecclesiastical Whodunnits

  1. Ecclesiastical, but not a whodunnit: has anyone out there read “The Towers of Trebizond” by Rose Macaulay? It has a promising start:

    “Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that
    animal on her return from high Mass.”

    However, I confess I found it fairly put-downable. I’ll give it another try when I go on holiday, if I can remember where I put it. Does that make me a total philistine?


    • Robin, I have a friend who practically gives this book away to friends and insists they read it. I did – many, many years ago – and loved it. Tried it again recently and couldn’t get into it. Perhaps you need to be in the right place at the right time.

  2. James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack is a rather interesting book from a Church of Scotland point of view as is Laura Marney’s Only Strange People Go to Church. Although not “who dun its” they are great reads with a disntictly churchy theme.

    • Neil, I’ve read The Testament etc – in fact we did it at a book group. I loved it but many hated it. Thanks for the other recommendation – on the wish list.

  3. well, not ‘clerical’ but terrific fun noentheless, are Margaret Frazier who writes about a convent, a band of travelling players, and the historical background is very impressive – the story is excellent, and there are about 18 of them so you could be reading happily for a while! starting with ‘the Novice’s Tale’.

  4. Father Brown. Dated, very dated in parts. Astonishingly perceptive in others. Brown can only detect because he knows his own capacity for evil. Now read on …

  5. Ruth, I cannot thank you enough for this post (though Justin is groaning at the number of books that have come through the post in the past week!). That’s my TISEC summer school reading sorted. I look forward to making the acquaintance of Merrily Watkins especially!

  6. Kate, have you not met Merrily Watkins yet? Oh dear. But I’ve got to say, that’s probably not the best for summer school, since they are very fat books and very much page turners. The stay-up-to-two-am kind. Which is why I haven’t cracked one since Owen was born as I fear it would lead to neglect.

    So great to fatten out my Amazon wishlist. My favorite ecclesiastical whodunnit so far has got to be PD James, Death in Holy Orders.

  7. How could I have forgotten PD James? Another of my favourites.

    Kate, I think, like you, I took some whodunnit to Tisec summer school then stayed up late drinking every night with the ‘in crowd’ and barely read a page. Learned a lot, mind you! But then I wasn’t a very good girl!

  8. Pingback: No Eyes to Read but Ears to Listen – Books 2 & 3 « Still Striving For that Elusive Halo

  9. Pingback: In which Ruth reads another ecclesiastical whodunnit « RevRuth's Rantings

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