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Joseph Bottum


God and the Detectives

Religious mysteries: a perplexing case.

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In recent years, most such books have been forced down into even narrower subcategories. Mystery-novel houses are simultaneously the most acquiescent and the most inflexible of publishers; they're like a sheep farm where all the animals rush to cram themselves into whichever small paddock was just discovered to have some fresh grass in it. Catholic priests and Orthodox rabbis, ex-nuns and clergymen's wives: If an author finds success with one such detective, the next two decades are sure to see the conceit nibbled to death.

So, for example, ever since Isabelle Holland gave us the Reverend Claire Aldington in Death at St Anselm's (1984) and D. M. Greenwood contributed the Deaconess Theodora Braithwaite in Clerical Errors (1991), we've been overwhelmed by Anglican women clergy as detectives. The Reverend Margaret Moon in Aline Templeton's Past Praying For (1996), the Reverend Lily Connor in Michelle Blake's The Tentmaker (1999), and the Reverend Clare Fergusson in Julia Spencer-Fleming's In the Bleak Midwinter (2002)—not to mention the Reverend Kathryn Koerney in Crooked Heart (2002), the Reverend Callie Anson in Evil Intent (2005), and the Reverend Faith Morgan in The Reluctant Detective (2010). Nothing short of an angry butcher is likely to halt the sheepish stampede.

And nothing short of divine intervention has much chance of damming the flood of medieval mysteries that began with the international bestsellerdom of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in 1980: Nicholas Barber, Brother Barnabas, and Brother Bernard—and those are just recent clerical detectives set in the 14th century. Whose names start with the letter B.

The female mystery-solvers in these stories seem to run to a higher class of ecclesiastical titles than the men do, on average, what with Dame Averilla, Prioress Eleanor, Dame Frevisse, Abbess Helewise, Abbess Hildegard, and so on. Lord knows, enough medieval mysteries have now been published to speak of averages—dozens of historical novels set in the Middle Ages, of which only three have detectives who have struck me, personally, as worth following, even in the perishable, transient sense: Ellis Peters' series about the 12th-century Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael, Peter Tremayne's stories about the 7th-century Irish nun Sister Fidelma, and Sharan Newman's books about the 12th-century French novice Catherine LeVendeur.

Of course, for a complete list of religious mysteries, you would also need to catalogue the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Colonial era, the Victorian age—all the other historical settings for stories about believing detectives (or, at least, detectives imagined to live in believing times). And don't forget the endless stream of supernaturally tinged evangelical thrillers, from Frank Peretti's The Oath to Dee Henderson's The Truth Seeker. Remember, as well, the annual holiday-themed collections: Santa Clues, Mystery for Christmas, Murder at Christmas, Murder Under the Mistletoe—and those are just a few anthology titles from the early 1990s.

At a guess (exact figures are impossible to find; another peculiar feature of contemporary publishing), perhaps three thousand mysteries and thrillers are printed in English every year. And by my rough survey of Amazon results, nearly a tenth of them touch on religion in some clearly recognizable way. All of which means that, even by a conservative count, mystery readers were confronted with more than two hundred new volumes of religious fiction in 2010. And in 2009. And in 2008 … The genre of God and the Detectives has grown to encompass more than anyone can actually read.

Unless, of course, simply having a few spires in the background and a handful of clerics in the foreground isn't enough to make a piece of fiction genuinely religious. Good writing helps, but the quality of the prose, by itself, won't distinguish the strong work from the perishable, junk-food stuff on which mystery readers feed. Something of a religious theme, something of a theological insight, has to be present as well. Something of God must be woven into the literary fabric, not just embroidered on as decoration.

In that sense, the greatest religious mystery novel ever written remains what it has been for well over a century: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1866 Crime and Punishment—except for the fact that it isn't a mystery novel. Not really. Not in any of the ways we actually mean when we speak of the popular, almost pulpy genre. However much it concerns a murderer and a detective, Crime and Punishment is too good, too serious, too thick, and, especially, too early to count.

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