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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Why the Death of Roger Ackroyd Matters

American Murder Mystery detective: I’m going to solve this murder because it’s horrible and dramatic and linked to me through my tragic backstory.

English Murder Mystery detective: I’m going to solve this murder because I don’t want to be late to tea.

A while ago we stumbled across the above quote on the internet. It made us laugh, and then it made us think, because we’re not sure it does justice to either classification of mystery.

The English murder mystery traditionally comes from a place of optimism. In it the world is inherently good, as are the people in it. When the detective is invoked it is because a Wrong has been committed that puts that goodness in jeopardy. It becomes the duty of Poirot, Campion, Wimsey, et al to restore that goodness, to preserve civilization. For that reason we often fail to see the corpse, or if we do, it is tidily presented. Not only that, the murder weapons we see in the early English mystery are often exotic, curio knives, pistols that date to the Boer war, sacrificial daggers and ancient artifacts.

Alison Light has argued that this is a reaction in Golden Age fiction especially, against the War. Readers needed the fantasy of clean, contained justice, not realistic renderings of corpses and their deaths. To a certain extent we suppose we must still need it, otherwise why be outraged when those ten Detection Club laws are broken? Why be startled by the violent death, the masses of fictive blood in Have His Carcass? Why care, as Edmund Wilson once famously asked, who killed Roger Ackroyd, and why be absolutely indignant when that particular solution is presented? Is it because in a civilized, well-ordered world, these things have no place?

We think it might be, and thinking on it, we recant; the loss of tea is a part of the English murder mystery since to delay it is to infringe upon civilization, and to lose the veneer of civility is to let the world fall, and that must not happen.

Often though, in American detective fiction, this is exactly what has happened. If the classic English mystery is cozy, the American is what writers of crime fiction call hardboiled. The detective is flawed, undeniably, but if s/he is flawed, so is their world. Where English mysteries begin from a place of optimism, the American begins from one of disillusionment. Here the world is fallen, the people imperfect. We see the corpses and more than that they are messy. There is violence and there are guns, people are battered and bruised; there is also blood, brains, severed limbs, and where in the English mystery these things would shock, here they feel inevitable. The world is an uncivilized one, tea will be late, and the detective is obliged to work outside the limits of the law to preserve it.

Never because of personal history though. While they undeniably have histories, when Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, and Vic Warshawski (to name but a few) fight devastating odds it is not in the name of their own private demons but because they must. Not to do so is to let a world they have sworn to protect fall to the Bay City Cops, the thugs, the mafia, is to sacrifice whatever innate goodness is left in the world. Their fight is to not to preserve, but to restore civilization and that fallen grace. Inevitably, it can’t be done all in one stint, so they go on fighting, never quite winning, but never wholly losing either. If the solution is not proclaimed with a triumphal yell, if the ends when tied together are frayed, it is because the victory in hardboiled fiction, like its corpses, is messy and its world a murky, changeable place in need of salvation.

Even here we’ve simplified it. We’ve not touched on the police procedural, which is a cat of another colour and exists at least in part to refute the isolated, defeatist world of the hardboiled gumshoe. Another time. For now it’s enough to have approximately sifted what it is that drives the mechanism of the hardboiled plot, why we love it, and why they fight.