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Joseph Bottum


God and the Detectives

Religious mysteries: a perplexing case.

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So, here's a book. You can find it, maybe, on the discount table of a local bookstore, or through Alibris, Amazon, or one of the other online purveyors of used books. I tend to use abebooks.com, where a mass-market paperback edition is currently listed for $5.50 plus $3.00 shipping—which is too much to pay for Reverend Randollph and the Holy Terror, a 1982 mystery novel by Charles Merrill Smith.

Not that Smith wrote particularly bad mysteries. A Methodist clergyman who achieved some fame with a satirical 1965 book called How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious, Smith decided to try his hand at popular fiction—and from 1974 until his death in 1986, he produced six volumes about Con Randollph, a former professional quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who, after retirement, became the pastor of a Protestant church in downtown Chicago. To leaf through any of Smith's mysteries is to discover that they're smoothly written, nicely plotted, and mildly comic.

Unfortunately, it's also to discover that they've grown about as badly dated as anything human can possibly become. The Reverend Randollph stories were enjoyable reading for their time. But here, for example, on Amazon—for $7.99 and free shipping—is our own day's rough equivalent: Katherine Hall Page's 2009 The Body in the Sleigh, the 18th entry in a smoothly written, nicely plotted, and mildly humorous series about Faith Fairchild, a minister's wife and caterer who solves local New England mysteries.

Yes, Page's stories are a lot cozier than Charles Merrill Smith's, and a whole lot more feminine, which makes a difference in the narrowly defined markets into which publishers divide mystery fiction these days. But the books share something, for all that—something that every mystery reader knows, although it's hard to name precisely. A characteristic of unlastingness, perhaps. A sort of perishable quality that signals, from the first page, that this is short-lived, timebound stuff. Not strong enough for the main course, not rich enough for dessert, such books get consumed mostly as snacks. The Body in the Sleigh, like Reverend Randollph and the Holy Terror, is the popcorn of its day.

As it happens, the books are also alike in featuring churches as significant backdrops and clergy as major characters. There's a reason Agatha Christie's first story about her spinster detective Miss Marple was called The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)—a book narrated by the village parson. Almost as long as the genre has existed, the religious have been wandering bemusedly into mystery fiction and crime has been paying its bloody visits to sacred ground, from Silas K. Hocking's 1903 Adventures of Latimer Field, Curate to Kate Charles' 2009 Deep Waters—or from C. L. Pirkis' 1893 "The Redhill Sisterhood" to Emilie Richards' 2010 A Truth For a Truth.

Some things have changed over the years, of course: the uses of technology, the openness about sex, and, notably, the treatment of religion. Where a kind of delicate deference once ruled, popular fiction now seems typically to present churchgoing characters as suspects—thanks, as near as I can tell, to the notion that devotion is pretty suspicious, all by itself, and what's a little homicide on top of religious mania? The quantity of casual anti-Christianity in contemporary mysteries and thrillers is more than a little disturbing, their pages full of duplicitous televangelists, fundamentalist cult leaders, and serial killers enacting complex Catholic rituals. Pick up Henning Mankell's Before the Frost for a good example: a 2005 book that essentially equates all religion with the Jonestown suicides, from a Swedish writer whose worldwide sales are now over thirty million. (One dreads the novelisitc uses to which the news from Norway will be put.) When in doubt about the murderer in an old Agatha Christie story, always guess that it's the doctor. And when in doubt about the murderer in a recent mystery novel, always guess that it's the Christian.

Against that over-easy modern trope of blame-the-believers, however, one has to set the teetering stacks of mysteries with actual clerics starring as the detectives—from Harry Kemelman's superior Rabbi Small series, to Ralph McInerny's pedestrian Sister Mary Teresa stories, and all the way down to the truly awful plots of Donna Fletcher Crow's ongoing Father Antony books. In the 1940s, we had Anthony Boucher's Nine Times Nine and Matthew Head's The Devil in the Bush. In the 1950s, Henri Catalan's Soeur Angéle and the Embarrassed Ladies and C. A. Alington's Gold and Gaiters. In the 1960s, Leonard Holton's Deliver Us from Wolves and Dorothy Salisbury Davis' Where the Dark Streets Go. And on and on, decade after decade, down to our own day.

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