One of the important purposes that members of the clergy are supposed to serve is helping others. And for many of those in the religious life, that means pursuing social justice. We’ve all heard terrible accounts of corrupt (or worse) ministers, priests, nuns, rabbis and the like. Those stories are all the more upsetting because those are people we’ve been taught to trust. But there are a great number of people in the religious life who work for social justice and sometimes take great risks pursuing it. They advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, they speak up for human rights and a lot more, too. The real world is better for them and we see them in crime fiction as well.
For example, in Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, we meet Rector Theodore Venables. On New Year’s Eve, he comes upon Lord Peter Wimsey and Wimsey’s valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter. Their car has been in an accident near Fenchurch St. Paul and they’re stranded, so Venables takes them in. Wimsey and Bunter are settling in at the rectory when word comes that Will Thoday, one of the bell-ringers, is ill and can’t participate in the New Year’s change-ringing. Wimsey agrees to take his place and the change-ringing is a big success. The next day Venables is called to the death-bed of local squire’s wife Lady Thorpe, who dies of the same influenza that struck Will Thoday. Wimsey and Bunter stay for the funeral and then, when their car is ready, they go on their way. A few months later Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. Sir Henry Thorpe has died and preparations are being made to bury him next to his wife. But to everyone’s shock, another corpse is discovered in the gravesite. Venables wants Wimsey to return to Fenchurch and investigate. Wimsey agrees and he and Bunter go back to the village and begin asking questions. The unidentified body turns out to be connected to a decades-old robbery and some missing emeralds and Wimsey finds out the truth about the case. Towards the end of the novel, a dangerous flood strikes the Fenchurch area and many of the people are at grave risk. Theodore Venables shows both his courage and his dedication to caring for others as he does his best to help the people of Fenchurch.
Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone features Don Alvise Perale, who was a parish priest in Oderzo, north of Venice. He saw his vocation as more than just meeting the spiritual needs of his parishioners. To him, it is important to help all of those who are desperate, poor and disenfranchised. When his parishioners objected to his opening his home to a non-Christian family from Sierra Leone, Perale got a letter from the bishop telling him to make the family leave. That’s when Perale left the priesthood. He is still a social activist though and that’s how he comes to work with Commissario Guido Brunetti in this novel. Brunetti is trying to find out the identity of a Senegalese man who was shot, execution-style, when he was laying out his wares in an open-air market. Brunetti suspects that Perale may have connections to the Senegalese immigrant community and wants his help identifying the victim. Perale’s first instinct is to protect the vulnerable members of this community from harassment, so he doesn’t want to tell Brunetti anything. But Brunetti is able to persuade him that there will be no repercussions, so Perales finally agrees to help point Brunetti in the right direction. With Perales’ help, Brunetti finds out where the dead man lived. That’s how he finds out that the man had with him a valuable cache of diamonds. Those diamonds are connected to an illegal arms-trafficking ring and to the murder.
One of Margaret Coel’s sleuths is Father John O’Malley, who works on the Arapaho Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Originally from Boston, Father John is a Jesuit priest who is slowly making his way back from what he refers to as The Great Fall – alcoholism. He no longer drinks and is trying to find a new place for himself within the Catholic Church. Father John sees himself as much more than just a person who presides over religious services. He takes personal responsibility for the people he serves, and often for those on the Reservation whom he doesn’t exactly serve. In The Eagle Catcher, for instance, Arapaho tribal chair Harvey Castle is murdered shortly after asking to meet privately with Father John. Then, Castle’s nephew Anthony is arrested for the crime. Father John is certain that Anthony is not guilty, so he asks Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden to help him look into the case. Soon enough, it comes out that Castle’s death may involve some very highly-placed people – people whom the mission depends on for contributions and other support. Father John is fully aware that he could face serious consequences for continuing to investigate. He and Holden persevere though and in the end, they find out who killed Castle and why.
One of the ‘regulars’ in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series is Sister Mary. She’s a Melbourne nun who works tirelessly to make things better for street people and others whom society has forgotten. Sister Mary is compassionate and caring, but make no mistake: she is a force to be reckoned with. Everyone respects her for the work she does and she has a way of getting people to do what she wants. Among many other things, Sister Mary is the organiser of the Soup Run, a mobile kitchen that travels to Melbourne’s worst areas to distribute food, non-alcoholic drinks and medicine to those who need it most. Chapman, who is Greenwood’s main sleuth, contributes bread from her bakery to the Soup Run and takes her turn riding along to help serve. Like everyone else, Chapman listens to Sister Mary. What makes Sister Mary so effective, both as a character in this series and as a social justice activist, is that she doesn’t back down from a difficult challenge. She bullies people for funds, permission, equipment, whatever is needed without actually making people feel that they’re being bullied. And she does an immense amount of good without preaching her own spiritual beliefs.
And then there’s Mildred Nilsson, a priest of the Swedish Church to whom we’re introduced in Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt. Nilsson takes personal responsibility for the members of her congregation and in particular, she works to raise awareness of domestic violence with the goal of stopping it. When she is found murdered, attorney Rebecka Martinnsson has the thankless task of working on behalf of the Swedish Church to arrange for Nilsson’s widower to move and resume possession of the house he and Nilsson had been using. In that context, Martinsson works with Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke, who are investigating the murder itself. They find that more than one person resented both Nilsson’s outspokenness and what they saw as meddling in their lives.
It’s sometimes very risky to live out the tenet of social justice, but there are members of the religious community who do it all the time. It’s a refreshing change to see them in crime fiction (and I know I haven’t mentioned them all. I’m thinking, for instance, of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown). That’s especially true when you consider how many awful things have been done by those who were supposed to protect the weakest among us. It’s good to know they’re not all like that.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Beds Are Burning.