In which Ruth reads another ecclesiastical whodunnit

Readers will remember my penchant for the genre of book which is known as the ecclesiastical/clerical whodunnit. Medieval or modern, it matters not a hoot to me as long as there is some churchy stuff and a good mystery. Occasionally, just occasionally, the churchy bits seem a bit contrived and this was the case with Donna Fletcher Crow’s second Monastery Murder: A Darkly Hidden Truth. It has all the makings of being a great book: female ordinand training at the Community of the Transfiguration (aka Mirfield) thinking of becoming a nun; handsome priest who teaches history; a missing icon; some Knights Hospitaller; several retreat houses; a bit of Julian of Norwich and her crazy pal Margery Kempe; a visit to Walsingham – what’s not to like?

The book is set between the 3rd week in Lent and Easter morning. I was fortunate enough to be invited to stay at Mirfield one Holy Week, long, long ago and there were many echoes of that as the book drew to a close. I’ve been to Walsingham and Norwich so again there were lots of familiar places for me which always makes a difference in a book. The story of the stolen icons was credible in a sort of Dan Brown kind of way. And the blossoming relationship between Fr Antony and Felicity kept you going, although it was pretty obvious where it was going.

But… the churchy bits just seem to be a little contrived. There were chunks of Julian of Norwich’s writings as well as some excerpts from Margery Kempe. All this did was show to me that the author was keen on them and wanted to show off her knowledge. They just didn’t really fit into the story, interesting though they may be. Perhaps I’m being unfair.

Good holiday reading. 4 stars.


More books what I have read

Gosh, it has been ages since I have blogged. That will be because of two funerals and a frantic race to get all things organised for being away. Yes, I am on holiday this week and then off to Windsor Castle next week for a course. However, although I’ve been really busy I have managed to read a few books.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick is our next book group choice. I chose it by looking at some American Book Club website and finding their book of the month. Wish I hadn’t now. ‘Full of Gothic twists, it’s an irresistible tale of skewed seduction’ said the Daily Mail. Why would I care what the Daily Mail says anyway but they got the skewed seduction right. The story could have been okay had it not been for the author’s penchant for putting all the main character’s thoughts on sex in every page. Well, not quite every page but it did get a bit tiresome. Set in 1907 Ralph puts an advert in a newspaper for a wife. Catherine arrives, beautiful of course, and then the ‘Gothic twists’ begin. There were some surprises and it wasn’t a bad wee story and page-turner but I could have managed without the endless pondering about sex.
It must be my age. 3 stars

Out of the Deep I cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming is the 3rd in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Can Alstyne mysteries, Clare being an Episcopal priest and Russ being the chief of police. I read the first two some years ago and remembered them as being quite good. I’m not sure this one was quite so good but that might have been because the story goes back and forwards in time which is something I don’t really enjoy in a novel. And how she managed to get all the sleuthing done in the middle of Lent is beyond me, however a bit of poetic license must be allowed I guess. As always, with an ecclesiastical whodunnit, I could have done with a bit more ‘churchy’ stuff. Spencer-Fleming does do ‘small town politics’ well. 4 stars.

Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate tells the tale of the Trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612. This is a book about women, some powerful and some abused. It is really a novella and just took me a few hours to read. John McLuckie does a much better review than I could. I loved the book. Winterson takes some real history and imbues it with her own fantastical writing. 5 stars.

I’m going to try my iPad for reading while I’m away instead of my Kindle. Will let you know how I get on. The clever thing is that they sync so that when I come home to my Kindle it should remember what page I was on with the iPad. Clever, eh?

The Trinity Game – a book review

I’ve just finished The Trinity Game by Sean Chercover on my Kindle. Again I can’t remember who recommended it to me, or if it was just one of those impulse Kindle purchases that seem to be happening more often. Amazon are very good at promoting those wee Kindle bargains, aren’t they?

This book would be perfect holiday reading if you want a bit of ecclesiastical espionage and a page-turning romp from the Vatican to New Orleans. There was a hint of The Da Vinci Code about it but I did enjoy it.

The blurb:

Daniel Byrne is an investigator for the Vatican’s secretive Office of the Devil’s Advocate—the department that scrutinizes miracle claims. Over ten years and 721 cases, not one miracle he tested has proved true. But case #722 is different; Daniel’s estranged uncle, a crooked TV evangelist, has started speaking in tongues—and accurately predicting the future. Daniel knows Reverend Tim Trinity is a con man. Could Trinity also be something more?

The evangelist himself is baffled by his newfound power—and the violent reaction it provokes. After years of scams, he suddenly has the ability to predict everything from natural disasters to sports scores. Now the mob wants him dead for ruining their gambling business, and the Vatican wants him debunked as a false messiah. On the run from assassins, Trinity flees with Daniel’s help through the back roads of the Bible Belt to New Orleans, where Trinity plans to deliver a final prophecy so shattering his enemies will do anything to keep him silent.

I loved the hero of the book, the priest Daniel, and enjoyed watching his relationship with his old girlfriend develop. I surprised myself at how strongly I wanted them to get it together. And I actually came round to being rather fond of the old rascal, Tim Trinity, the evangelist. The church hierarchy doesn’t come off terribly well – c’est la vie, eh?

I can see there being more books in a series and it would also make a great movie. 4 stars.

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…