There are all sorts of fictional sleuths, both professional and amateur. And an interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about one kind of sleuth in particular: the sleuth who is a nun. I’ll have more to say about nuns in a moment. For now, let me give you a chance to go visit Clothes in Books, a most excellent resource for rich discussions of fashion, culture and social trends in literature. Trust me, you want this blog on your blog roll.
Right. Nuns. Nuns pop up in crime fiction quite a lot. Most crime fiction fans can think of examples of novels that feature a nun or a convent. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that nuns can also make effective sleuths. A quick glance at some fictional sleuths who are nuns should show you what I mean.
One of the better-known examples of the nun as sleuth is Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma. The Sister Fidelma series takes place in 7th Century Ireland, a time when only the wealthy and ‘well born’ were educated. And that was especially true for women. But Sister Fidelma has the advantage of noble birth and ‘breeding.’ She is a Princess of Munster who has been given an education and become a dailegh, an Irish lawyer. She is also of course a nun, at least for most of the series. Because of Sister Fidelma’s noble birth and legal background, she is privy to a great deal of ‘palace intrigue’ and politics of the day, and many of the plots of these novels deal with court doings. In most of the novels, she works with Brother Eadulf, a Saxon clergyman whom she eventually marries. Sister Fidelma is unusual for her times but, a bit like Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar, she is an interesting character for just that reason.
The writing team of Gail Frazer and Mary Monica Pulver Kuhfeld created the Dame Frevisse series, which takes place in 15th Century England. Dame Frevisse is a Benedictine nun who lives at St Frideswide’s in Oxfordshire. The series begins with The Novice’s Tale, in which a young ‘well born’ woman named Thomasine is preparing to join the convent. Her great-aunt, Lady Ermentrude Fenner, has other ideas though, and when she pays the convent a visit, Thomasine is less than happy to see her. Then, Lady Ermentrude suddenly dies, just weeks before Thomasine is to take her final vows. Thomasine is the most natural suspect, but Dame Frevisse doesn’t think she’s guilty. What’s more, she has no desire for the convent to lose its only novice. So she looks more deeply into what’s happened to find out who really killed Lady Ermentrude.
Boris Akunin wrote a trilogy of historical mysteries that take place in the very late 19th Century/early 20th Century. The trilogy features a Russian Orthodox nun Sister Pelagia. Besides her religious duties, Sister Pelagia teaches at the diocesan school for girls at Zavolzhsk on the Volga River. In the first of the trilogy, Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, Mitrofanii, Bishop of Zavolzhsk, learns that someone has been poisoning his great-aunt’s prized white bulldogs. This is a new and therefore rare breed and she is of course devastated about the poisoning. Mitrofanii has the reputation of being able to solve difficult problems, but really, he’s not the one with the skill at deduction: it’s his protégée Sister Pelagia. The bishop asks her to go to the town where his great-aunt lives and see if she can find out who is responsible for the poisoning. She agrees (after all, it’s her duty to do as the bishop says) and travels to Drozdovka to look into the matter. She soon finds though that this is much more than just someone going after dogs. When humans start dying too, Sister Pelagia knows that she’s up against a dangerous killer.
There’s an interesting series about a retired nun that was actually written by a nun. Sister Carol Anne O’Marie was a Sister of St Joseph of Carondelet for fifty years, so she certainly understood the religious life. Her sleuth is 75-year-old Sister Mary Helen who at the beginning of the series has recently retired from her Order. In the first novel, A Novena For Murder, she’s accepted a position teaching at San Francisco’s Mount St. Francis College for Women. Not at all ready for complete retirement, Sister Mary Helen has traded her traditional habit for modern clothes and is thinking she’ll include some teaching innovations in her curriculum. Then, an earthquake reveals a dead body that shouldn’t have been there. When the police make an arrest, Sister Mary Helen thinks they have the wrong suspect. So she does some investigating of her own.
Of course, nuns can be important in crime novels even if they aren’t the protagonists. For instance, in Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body, Inspector Sloan and Constable Crosby investigate the murder of Sister Anne, a member of the Convent of St. Anselm. In order to find out who the murderer might be, the detectives have to get to know the convent and the nuns who call it home. So although she doesn’t solve the crime, St. Anselm’s Mother Superior does provide a lot of insight.
And then there’s Sister Mary, a ‘regular’ in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. She runs the Melbourne Soup Run, a mobile service that brings food, medicine, clothes and other necessities to Melbourne’s street people. Sister Mary is determined to do some good and make a difference, and she lives out her religious beliefs. She’s also got a very strong personality so people often find themselves doing what she wants whether they originally wanted to or not. In this series, Chapman, who is a baker, is the protagonist. But Sister Mary certainly plays an important role. In Devil’s Food, for instance, Chapman’s parents have come to Melbourne on a visit, and her father disappears. Chapman knows that her father doesn’t have friends or relatives (other than her) in Melbourne, and he also doesn’t have any money with him. So she figures out that he may be at one of the charity shelters in the city. Sister Mary knows them all and is able to help find out what happened to Chapman’s father.
The stereotype of a nun may not include ‘detective,’ but the fact is, nuns are often highly intelligent and observant and can be very effective sleuths. Which crime-fictional nun-sleuths do you like best?
Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Sister Janet Mead