Category Archives: G.K. Chesterton

I Just Need One More Day*

One Day to Solve a CaseA recent comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books and Les at Classic Mysteries has got me thinking about stories in which the action takes place within 24 hours (sometimes even less).  Now, before I go on, please take a little time and visit those two top-notch blogs. Both are rich resources for bibliophiles. Go on, I’ll wait. 

Right. Compressed time spans. In most modern crime novels there’s an acknowledgement that solving a murder takes time – sometimes weeks, months or years. But in plenty of classic/Golden Age crime fiction (and in some modern novels too), the action is much more compressed. That short a timeline can add much to the suspense of a story if it’s done well. Besides, any detective will tell you that the first 24 hours after a crime are the most vital. So it’s realistic to want a crime solved quickly. There is a great deal of crime fiction with that ‘one day or less’ timeline. I only have space to mention a few examples here. 

Many of G.K. Chesterton’s short stories take place within an extremely short timeline. For instance, in The Invisible Man, successful businessman Isadore Smythe confides to an acquaintance John Angus that he’s being harassed by a former romantic rival. He’s gotten threatening letters and he feels as though he’s in danger. Angus suggests that Smythe call in professional assistance and Smythe agrees to do so. The plan is that after Angus gets some professional advice from a detective he knows, he’ll visit Smythe’s home and let him know what the detective recommends. When Angus gets to the detective’s home, he sees that Father Brown, who is a friend of the detective, is there. After Angus explains his purpose, everyone goes to Smythe’s home, only to see that he’s been murdered. No-one has been in or out of his home, so it looks like an ‘impossible mystery.’ It’s not though, and Father Brown shows, within a very short time, how it was done and by whom. 

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. They decide to take a few days and visit Petra during their stay. While they’re there, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be a homicidal overdose of digitalis. Colonel Carbury asks Hercule Poirot, who’s staying in the area, to investigate. However, he can’t offer Poirot an awful lot of time, since he’s going to have to release anyone who’s not a suspect very quickly. Poirot determines to find out the killer within twenty-four hours and soon enough, finds more than one suspect. Mrs. Boynton was a ‘mental sadist,’ both cruel and malicious, so just about all of the people on the trip, including the members of her family, are under suspicion. Poirot interviews everyone, puts together the pieces of the puzzle and finds out who the killer is – and all within a day. 

There’s an odd case of what seems to be a disappearing house in Ellery Queen’s The Lamp of God. Queen gets a call from an attorney friend of his Thorne, who has a strange request. He wants Queen to meet him at New York’s Pier 54, and to bring a gun. He also wants Queen to pack a bag for what appears to be a short stay somewhere. Queen agrees, mostly for the sake of the friendship, and goes to the pier. There they meet Alice Mayhew, a young heiress whose financial interests Thorne wants Queen to help protect. Soon enough, Queen also understands that her life may be in danger too. When Alice arrives, the group travels to the Mayhew home in Long Island. The main house on the property isn’t habitable, so everyone gets as comfortable as possible in a smaller house next door. The next morning, the large house seems to have disappeared completely. There isn’t even any evidence that it was ever there. To make matters worse, there are all sorts of threatening undercurrents and odd occurrences in the Gothic tradition, and it’s obvious that someone means deadly business. There isn’t much time to solve this case, but Queen manages to put the pieces together. It turns out that the case hinges on a very well-conceived plot where one unexpected thing happens to change everything. 

In Timothy Fuller’s Reunion With Murder, Harvard professor Edmund ‘Jupiter’ Jones gets involved in a case of murder during a 10-year alumni reunion. Sherman North is found murdered on the Syonsett Golf Course only hours after he and some friends were celebrating their tenth reunion. One of those friends is Ed Rice, who is also a friend of Jones. In fact, Rice is slated to stand as best man at Jones’ wedding. When Rice becomes the prime suspect in North’s murder, Jones and his fiancée Betty have only twenty-four hours in which to solve the case if Rice is to attend their wedding. 

And lest you think that that compressed timeline occurs only in classic/Golden Age novels, it happens in modern novels too. Just as one example, in Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole, the body of Corporal Shareef Smith is found in a locked stall in the men’s washroom of a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway. It looks as though he committed suicide, and evidence indicates that he was on his way to Sea Haven, New Jersey when he did so. But if he committed suicide, why did someone ransack his car? There are other pieces of evidence too that suggest that perhaps Smith didn’t shoot himself. When it’s shown that Smith was murdered, Sergeant Dale Dixon, whose unit has just returned from Iraq, wants to carry out justice in his own way against whatever locals might have killed one of his men. But police officer John Ceepak isn’t one for vigilante justice. So he makes a bargain with Dixon. Dixon will keep himself and his unit out of the investigation for 24 hours. Now Ceepak and his partner Danny Boyle only have one day in which to find out who killed Smith and why. In the end, Ceepak and Boyle discover that Smith had found out more than it was safe to know about someone with important connections. 

There’s also Marianne Harden’s cosy novel Malicious Mischief. In that novel, twenty-four-year-old Rylie Keyes is working as chauffer for the Fountain of Youth Retirement Home. When one of the residents Otto Weiner is found suffocated while in Keyes’ care, it looks very much as though she is at best negligent and at worst a murderer. And she has a motive, since Weiner has a grudge against her. Keyes will have to solve the murder as quickly as she can in order to clear her name and keep her job. If she doesn’t, she’ll be responsible for losing the home that’s been in her family for generations. So she determines to solve the case within 24 hours. It may be overambitious, but she is set on finding out who really killed Weiner. And as it turns out, there’s no lack of suspects. Weiner was an unpleasant person to begin with, and he’s made more than one enemy. 

There are all sorts of credible reasons for which a detective may only have one day in which to solve a case. And that pace can add some interesting suspense to a novel. Which gaps have I left?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Secondhand Serenade’s Broken.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Ellery Queen, G.K. Chesterton, Marianne Harden, Timothy Fuller

You’ve Got a Friend in Me*

BuddiesOne of the more popular kinds of films is the ‘buddy film.’ In that sort of film there are two protagonists, and the film explores their friendship while at the same time featuring a separate plot. Some ‘buddy films’ are cop films (e.g. Walter Hill’s 48 Hours). Others are ‘road films’ (e.g. Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise). There are other variants on the theme too of course. Over the years it’s been a successful premise for a film, and we see it a lot in crime fiction too.

You’ll notice in this post that I won’t be talking about series such as Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe series, where the two protagonists are superior/subordinate. I’m also not going to focus on novels where there’s a possible or budding romance between the two protagonists. To me, that’s a different dynamic. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some ‘buddy’ crime fiction.

One of the earlier examples of this sort of dynamic is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Hercule Flambeau. When they first meet in The Blue Cross, Flambeau is a master jewel thief. In that story, Father Brown is en route to a large gathering of priests. He’s carrying with him a large silver cross set with sapphires, a most attractive prize for a thief like Flambeau. Father Brown finds an interesting way to deal with Flambeau and as the stories go on, we see how the two men form a friendship. They respect each other and later, they solve cases together. It’s an interesting dynamic, and readers can see how that dynamic evolves as the stories go on.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp on several cases. As we learn in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, they’ve known each other for some time, too – since before Poirot left his native Belgium for England. Poirot is certainly not modest when it comes to his own abilities, but he respects Japp. And he knows Japp has access to resources and information that he, Poirot, doesn’t have. So he doesn’t really treat Japp as a sidekick. For his part, Japp pokes fun at Poirot’s ‘tortuous mind,’ and he isn’t blind to Poirot’s faults. But he respects Poirot’s brilliance as a detective. The two do develop a friendship over the course of the novels, and they depend on each other’s expertise.

Another interesting ‘buddy series’ is Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delalware/Milo Sturgis novels. Delaware is a forensic psychologist with a former career as a psychotherapist. Sturgis is a cop with the LAPD. Beginning with When the Bough Breaks, the two work together on cases where Delaware’s expertise is needed. In that novel, psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez are found murdered. The key to the murder may lie with seven-year-old Melody Quinn, who was a witness. So Sturgis asks Delaware to work with Melody to help her remember as much as she can. The murders turn out to be related to some of the characters’ past histories, and to some things going on at an orphanage. Over the course of the novels, Delaware and Sturgis maintain their friendship although it is tested at times. They rely on one another and they trust each other.

There’s also Craig Johnson’ Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear. Fans of this series will know that Longmire is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Henry Standing Bear is a member of the Cheyenne Nation, and also the owner of The Red Pony, a local bar/restaurant.  The two men have been friends for a long time – since both served in Viet Nam. There are times when they don’t agree, and sometimes they annoy each other. But underneath, they trust each other, quite literally, with their lives. They get in more than one extremely dangerous situation together, and as the series goes on, we also see how they depend on one another.

We see an interesting case of the ‘buddy’ theme in Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team are investigating the bizarre multiple murders of Jacob Schyttelius and his parents. At first, it looks as though the murders might be the work of a Satanist group. But that theory is soon disproved. Another very real possibility is that the murders were committed by someone with an animus against the whole family. If that’s true, then Jacob’s sister Rebecka may be in danger. So Huss travels to London, where Rebecka Schyttelius works with a computer development company. While there, Huss works with Met police inspector Glen Thompson. Thompson has local connections, local authority, and access to information that Huss needs. For her part, Huss has particulars of the case at hand. So the two complement each other as they combine forces. It turns out that that co-operation is important, since the key to this case is in the Schyttelius family’s past as well as Rebecka’s life in London. In the course of the novel, Huss and Thompson do develop a friendship, and we can see how they learn to work together.

There’s also an interesting case of a ‘buddy’ crime novel in Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go. Janusz Kiszka is an unofficial ‘fixer’ in London’s Polish community. So when Father Piotr Pietruzki hears of some disturbing news, Kiszka is the man he trusts. It seems that a young woman named Weronika, who hasn’t been in London very long, has recently disappeared. So Kiszka agrees to ask some questions and see what he can learn. Weronika was last seen with a boyfriend Pawel Adamski, so Kiszka and his friend Oskar begin to trace the couple. In the meantime, DC Natalie Kershaw and DS Alvin ‘Streaky’ Bacon are investigating two murders that turn out to be related to Weronika’s disappearance. In the course of the investigation, Kershaw meets Kiszka, first considering him a suspect, and then as a sort of ally, as she investigates. And that relationship is in itself interesting. So is the ‘buddy’ relationship between Kiszka and his friend Oskar. The two have known each other for some time. They’re drinking and card-playing buddies, and in the course of this novel, they also work together on Weronika’s disappearance.

There are of course lots of other solid ‘buddy’ series and novels (I know, I know, fans of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury/Melrose Plant novels). Which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Randy Newman

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Craig Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, Helene Tursten, Jonathan Kellerman, Martha Grimes

Something About You, Baby, Really Knocks Me Off My Feet*

Mysterious SleuthIn general, crime fiction fans want their sleuths to be believable. Otherwise it’s very difficult to ‘buy’ a storyline or the protagonist and that of course is practically guaranteed to pull a reader out of a novel. But it can also be interesting if a sleuth is just a little enigmatic, or has at least some air of mystery. It’s hard to draw a character like that without sacrificing credibility and humanity. But a touch of mystery can make a sleuth a very interesting character and keep readers wanting to know more.

One of the classic examples of this kind of character is GK Chesterton’s Father Paul Brown. On the one hand, there are certainly things that make him a very real, credible character. He eats, he drinks and he sleeps as we all do. In many ways, he is a completely real person. On the other hand, there is something enigmatic about him. We don’t really know much about his background, and he has a way that’s hard to put in words of finding out the truth about cases. He certainly pays attention to facts and evidence. But he understands people at a different sort of level.

One of Agatha Christie’s recurring characters is Mr. Harley Quin. We don’t really know where he comes from or much about his background. His usual explanation for being in a given place at a given time is that he is ‘just passing through.’ There’s a real air of mystery about him, but at the same time, he is real enough. He eats, he drinks, he talks as other people do and so on. In Christie’s short story The Harlequin Tea Set for instance, he just happens to be passing by a village where Mr. Satterthwaite (another Christie ‘regular’) has stopped for tea. Satterthwaite is on his way to visit an old friend and when he encounters Quin, he tells him about the family. It turns out that Quin’s input is very useful when Satterthwaite’s friend suddenly dies.

Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg has a bit of mystery about him too. In some ways he’s quite down-to-earth. He’s originally from the Pyrenees, and as the series goes on, we learn a bit about his background, which is real enough. He eats, drinks, sleeps, and so on. But in some ways, there is a little something different about him. He doesn’t solve cases in exactly the way other police officers do. It’s not that he ignores evidence (which he doesn’t), but he gets a certain sense from people that guides him as much as anything else does. As we learn in The Chalk Circle Man, he sometimes wishes he didn’t think that way, but as he puts it:

 

‘What I’m telling you about is something that I can’t help. In fact, it gives me enormous trouble in my life. If only I could be wrong about someone once in a while, about whether he was an upright citizen or not, or sad, or intelligent, or untruthful, or troubled, or indifferent, or dangerous, or timid…’

 

Over time, Adamsberg’s colleagues get used to his ability to sense things about people. They see that although he doesn’t go about cases in the way they do (and some of them are quite pointed about that), he gets to the truth.

That’s also the case with Anne Zouroudi’s Hermes Diaktoros. In many ways, he’s quite a real person. He smokes, eats, drinks, has likes and dislikes, and those things make him credible. But at the same time, he’s a little mysterious too. We don’t really know much about where he comes from or his background. We’re not even really sure how he gets involved in cases. He generally says he ‘comes from Athens’ to investigate, but he isn’t specific about whom he works for or why he takes an interest in a given case. Here’s what he says about it in The Messenger of Athens:

 

‘As for who I am, I’ve made no claims. So choose for yourself. Perhaps I am a mere philanthropist. Or maybe I am a man of means who simply enjoys meddling in the lives of the less fortunate. Perhaps the Police Authority employs me to combat corruption in our remote police forces. Maybe I am all those things. Or none. Maybe I was sent here by a higher authority still.’

 

That said, though, Diaktoros is a very real person who solves cases by gathering information, talking to witnesses and so on. He doesn’t solve cases magically.

Neither does Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. On the one hand, she is quite real. We know her history (she’s the daughter of costermonger Frankie Dobbs) and we know how she comes to open her own detective agency. Like everyone else she goes about her daily life and she’s very much a real person. And yet there is something about her that is a little mysterious. That’s also true of her mentor Maurice Blanche. Blanche is a psychologist and doctor, but he’s got wide-ranging interests, and he seems to have a real intuition about people. You couldn’t call it being psychic, and (in my opinion anyway) that makes his intuition all the more interesting. We don’t know very much about his personal background or life either. He’s taught Maisie a lot of what he knows about ‘reading’ people, about using one’s intuition and about sensing things. And she has learned well. That aspect of her makes her just enigmatic enough to be interesting without making her hard to ‘buy’ as a character.

Sleuths who have that certain air of mystery about them can add a lot to a series, especially as we get to know them bit by bit. That bit of mystery can make the reader all the more interested in the sleuth. At the same time, it has to be balanced with credibility. Sleuths one can’t imagine actually existing can pull the reader out of the story. What do you think? Do you like your sleuths to be a little enigmatic, or do you prefer them to be completely straightforward?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s La Do Da.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Zouroudi, Fred Vargas, G.K. Chesterton, Jacqueline Winspear

Can’t You See I’m Smart?*

Multiple IntelligencesResearch during the past few decades has shown us some fascinating things about the way we think and know. It used to be believed that intelligence could be measured on a single dimension. The assumption was that everyone had a certain amount of this one ‘thing’ called intelligence. But work by Howard Gardner and other researchers has changed all that. Gardner conceived of several different intelligences. According to this theory, there are several different ways of thinking and knowing; Gardner called them multiple intelligences. We each have some of each of the intelligences, but in each of us, at least one (and usually more than one) is particularly strong. Hold on – I’ll get to crime fiction in just a second.

Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligences make a lot of intuitive sense if you think about it. Some people are naturally good at, say, art, music, athletics or languages. And research has supported his theory fairly consistently. We can even see these multiple intelligences woven all through crime fiction. If you look at the way various sleuths go about solving cases, you can see how different ways of thinking and knowing come through in the genre.

For instance, one of Gardner’s multiple intelligences is what he called logical-mathematical intelligence. People with a high degree of this kind of intelligence find it easy to recognise patterns and algorithms. They find numbers and codes and puzzles interesting and their skill is in deduction. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. As Holmes fans know, he looks for patterns and focuses on deduction and logic.

There’s also what Gardner called visual-spatial intelligence. People with visual-spatial intelligence tend to be talented at art. They notice colour and design and respond to what they see. In a very obvious way we see that kind of intelligence in Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy. She’s an artist who responds to what she sees and can create in several different media. For instance in both Final Curtain and Tied Up in Tinsel (and other novels too), Troy is commissioned to paint portraits. So she’s on the scene when murder happens at the homes where she’s staying. Although it’s technically her husband Roderick Alleyn who officially solves the cases, Troy’s skilled eyes are very helpful in finding clues. We see that especially in A Clutch of Constables in which she goes up against an international art forger known only as Jampot. Hercule Poirot also has this kind of intelligence. He’s quite observant about his visual surroundings and of course, fans know how important the appearance of his clothes and moustaches are to him.

Some people have a great deal of linguistic intelligence. Novelists, poets, journalists and other writers often fall into this category. If you love words, play a lot of word games and notice the way people use language, you’ve got a solid dose of this kind of intelligence. For instance, John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell is a lexicographer. Words and languages are his specialty. That’s how he finds out the truth in, for instance, Hag’s Nook, where a cryptic poem turns out to be key to a murder. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse has a dose of this kind of intelligence too. He does after all solve crossword puzzles with a pen and is a stickler for certain kinds of language use.

People with a lot of kinesthetic intelligence have a solid sense of where their bodies are in space. Actors, athletes, dancers, and people who can parallel park on the first try show this kind of intelligence. People with kinesthetic intelligence like to learn by doing and using their hands and bodies. For example, Helene Tursten’s DI Irene Huss has a share of kinesthetic intelligence. She is a former judo champion who uses the principles of judo to keep herself in shape as well as to clear her mind and cope with the stresses of her life as a cop. And interestingly, we several instances in this series where Huss gets bored and tired of paperwork and the other ‘desk routines’ that are part of a cop’s life. Although she’s hardly rash, Huss prefers to be out doing things to sitting at her desk. She also enjoys going for runs and exercising the family dog. All of those are hallmarks of kinesthetic intelligence and it serves Huss well.

Gardner also proposed interpersonal intelligence. People with interpersonal intelligence are skilled at interacting with others. I don’t mean that they are necessarily manipulators; rather, they work well with all kinds of people. And that is a critical skill for a sleuth. So, most fictional sleuths have at least some degree of it. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Paul Brown for instance is highly skilled at communicating with others, at forming bonds with them and understanding their perspectives. That’s how he learns as much as he does from suspects and witnesses. Karin Fossum’s Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer is like that too. When he’s investigating a crime, one of his talents is the ability to see things from a variety of other perspectives and ‘get in people’s heads’ to understand why and how they do what they do. People tend to become comfortable talking with him and he often finds himself better able to get information through his interactions than he would through simply reading police reports.

There are also people with a lot of what Gardner called intrapersonal intelligence. Reflective people, people who keep journals and those who are really aware of themselves show this kind of intelligence. And being aware of one’s own reactions  – one’s sense of self – can be very useful for a sleuth. For example, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux has a keen self-awareness. That self-knowledge and reflection have helped him cope with some of the traumas he’s had to face, especially his Vietnam-era experiences. For instance in A Morning For Flamingoes, Robicheaux agrees to go undercover as a ‘dirty’ cop to try to trap New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. Part of his assignment is to get close to Cardo but that proves increasingly difficult for Robicheaux as he becomes aware that he has sympathy for his target. Throughout this novel, Robicheaux keeps himself as grounded as he can by ‘checking in with himself.’

Another of the multiple intelligences people have is musical intelligence. Obviously singers, composers and musical artists have a healthy dose of this kind of intelligence. But it’s more than just being able to sing or play music on key. It’s also a sense of rhythm and a keen awareness of sound. If you like a soundtrack when you work, or if you find yourself singing or whistling when you weren’t aware of it, or if you can’t help walking in time to the music when you walk past a car with its radio on, you know what I mean. And if you don’t, just ask Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson, who used to be a rock singer and still does occasional gigs. Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus has musical intelligence as well although he’s hardly a famous rocker. His music collection matters a lot to him and there are lots of scenes in the Rebus novels (including a really well-done scene in Exit Music) in which he gets or listens to music.

Naturalist intelligence is actually pretty self-explanatory. People who are attuned to nature and its rhythms and who just ‘fit in’ in natural environments have a lot of naturalist intelligence. Garden enthusiasts, park rangers, those who are comfortable with animals and those who simply like to be outdoors are examples of those with naturalist intelligence. There’s a lot of it in crime fiction too. Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest, and Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon are all examples of people who learn from and use nature as they solve crimes. So does Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. These sleuths can tell much from weather patterns, animal activity, ground marks and other natural phenomena. In fact, they often find clues where others can’t.

Finally there’s what Gardner called existential intelligence, the most recent of his proposals. The big questions – the ‘why’ questions – appeal to people with a lot of existential intelligence. Philosophers and members of the clergy often wrestle with these larger questions. And sometimes getting philosophical can be helpful to a sleuth. It is to Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie, who is the editor of Review of Applied Ethics. She doesn’t go out looking for physical clues, and she doesn’t search for patterns. Rather, she looks at the larger motivations people have, and considers the larger issues of morality.

You may be thinking, ‘But don’t all these sleuths also have other intelligences?’ They do indeed. That’s the thing about multiple intelligences. We’ve all got all of the intelligences to some degree. And what’s most interesting is that we can develop the ones we choose to develop.

Interested in taking a look at your own intelligences? Try this Multiple Intelligences Survey. It’s got 40 questions and took me about 10 minutes or so to complete.  By no means is it definite – it’s just one look at the way we learn and know. If you’re a writer, what intelligences does your protagonist have?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Undertones’ Smarter Than You.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Colin Dexter, G.K. Chesterton, Helene Tursten, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Jill Edmondson, John Dickson Carr, Karin Fossum, Nevada Barr, Ngaio Marsh, Tony Hillerman

The Time Has Come to Say Fair’s Fair*

Social ActivismOne 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.

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Filed under Åsa Larsson, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Kerry Greenwood, Margaret Coel