Murder in the Vestry: Clergy in Detective Fiction

When PBS first started airing the latest season of Grantchester, WNED ran a promotional ad that was words to the effect ‘Featuring unlikely duo Sydney Chambers and Geordie Keating’  Not a bad line except for one wee detail; fiction is replete with clerical detectives. Many of them are even Anglican. There are so many in fact that to list them all would be unwieldy. Here though are some of our favourites.

Fr. Tom Christmas. He’s not really high enough to be ‘Father’ to anyone, but some last names come with a doom, and that seems to be his. He’s the rector to St Nicholas Church (or course he is) in the parish of Thornford Regis. His mysteries invariably take their theme from The Twelve Days of Christmas and are as cozy as any Golden Age writer could hope for. The fact that Canadian writer C. C. Benson infuses them with that quintessential Englishness that makes the books best suited to dreich, tea-filled afternoons would be impressive in and of itself, but the mysteries are clever and the characters charming. Mind housekeeper Madrun though, she has Opinions and enough prickle to her to run circles around even Mrs McGuire.

Fr. Brown – All right, he’s not Anglican, but if he didn’t invent the clergy-detective, it feels as if he did and any list would be incomplete without him. G.K. Chesterton first priest introduces his sleuthing priest The Blue Cross and the world never looked back. We love Chesterton’s deft welding theology and the murder mystery. We’ve said it before and we mean it, nothing is more addictive in reading than the assumption that the reading audience is intelligent.

Rev. Dr Blake Fisher is Fredrick Ramsay’s detective, and we can’t win with our fictive clergy this evening because this one objects to being called Reverend since it’s an adjective, not a noun. He’s an American detective, an Episcopalian with a gift for observation and making faith accessible without ever reducing it.

Fr. Gilbert for a novelty doesn’t object to his title. He’s also formerly of Scotland Yard, so when we told the WNED continuity announcer (not that he heard us) that we’d heard of stranger pairs than television’s favourite Cambridgeshire clergyman, we meant it. He believes strongly in evil, and unlike rational Fr. Brown, is prone to seeing the odd spectre. We don’t mind though, we were trained on Muriel Spark. There are definitely weirder things in fiction than a light touch of the gothic. No really, go read The Ballad of Peckham Rye and get back to us. We dare you to find a novel more bizarre.

There are others, of course, there always are with lists like these. No one loves a priest so well as a mystery writer, and we can’t blame them. Given our druthers we’d take confessing to any of our detective clergy over formidable Morse, Rebus or even the charming Steve Carella, and not just because biscuits seem to be less forthcoming from fictive police.

Every type of character brings advantages to detection. Morse had his vast intellect, Carella his cohort at the 87th Precinct. Clergy though bring their humanity, or they should. They offer an understanding of people, the good along with the bad that makes them particularly well-suited to solving murders.

To the continuity people over at WNED we can only say that if it’s strange pairs they’re after, they’d be better off reading Witches of Lychford. As mysteries go it has its holes, but we can’t think of a stranger pair than the triumvirate of vicar, witch and hippy it offers. Perhaps you can though, or have a favourite religious sleuth we’ve missed out. If so, we’d love to hear from you!

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