Category Archives: Kerry Greenwood

That’s Where the Big Bands Used to Come and Play*

Dance HallsAmong many other things, crime fiction shows us how society changes over time. It also gives readers a look at really interesting social phenomena. For instance, from the turn of the last century until the 1960s, the dance hall was an important fixture in the social life of many communities. Before the nightclub was introduced, dance halls were the places people went to on a Friday or Saturday night. Some dance halls were of course seedy and dangerous. Others were more respectable places where young people could meet. Either way, they were places where a diverse group of people got together, where romance blossomed, where liquor was sometimes served and conflicts sometimes erupted. Yes, they were perfect contexts for a mystery. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s short story The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Maria Packington is fed up with her life and with her husband George, who has been paying far more attention to his secretary than business requires. At the end of her tether, she answers a cryptic personal ad:

 

Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street.

 

Intrigued, she does just that. Pyne takes her case and that’s how she meets Claude Luttrell. Luttrell is pleasant, attractive and debonair. The two begin to go out to meals and to dance halls. For George’s part, he’s pleased that Maria is much less grumpy and jealous, and hopes that means she’ll leave him freer to pursue his own interests. Then one night, the Packingtons and their respective escorts end up at the same dance hall, The Red Admiral. That evening changes everything.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin series will know that Goodwin and his sometimes-girlfriend Lily Rowan go out dancing in several of the stories. In Death of a Dude for instance, Rowan has invited Goodwin to be part of a house party at her ranch in rural Montana. Goodwin plans to return to New York after a short holiday, but his plans change when Philip Brodell is shot and Lily’s ranch manager Roger Dunning is accused of the murder. Lily is quite sure he’s innocent, and she wants an initially-reluctant Goodwin to investigate. He doesn’t feel quite at home in this rural atmosphere, but this is Lily Rown, so he agrees. He also writes to Nero Wolfe explaining what’s happened and why he won’t be back to New York until much later than he’d thought. Wolfe takes an interest in the case; in fact, this is one of the few Rex Stout stories in which Wolfe leaves his famous New York brownstone in the course of an investigation. He travels to Montana where he and Goodwin find out who shot Brodell and why. And part of the answer lies at Woodrow ‘Woody’ Stephanian’s Hall of Culture, which serves as a Saturday night dance hall, and where Goodwin and Lily go out more than once.

In Kerry Greenwood’s The Green Mill Murder,  Phryne Fisher and her date Charles Freeman are dancing at the Green Mill, a popular upmarket dance hall. A dance marathon has just ended when one of the contestants Bernard Stevens slumps to the floor, stabbed to death. Phyrne gets involved in the investigation, but before she can get very far, Charles Freeeman disappears. His mother hires Phryne to find him, and what she discovers leads back to Freeman’s past and to the end of World War I. It’s also tied in with the solution of the mystery.

And then there’s Victoria Thompson’s Murder on St. Mark’s Place. New York City midwife Sarah Brandt is called to the home of one of her patients Agnes Otto, who is due at any time to give birth to her third child. Thinking she’s been called to assist at the delivery, Brandt arrives to find that Agnes’ sister Gerda has been beaten to death and her body found in an alley. Gerda had recently come from Germany to live with her sister and start a new life. She was working at a shirt factory and so far as anyone knew, didn’t have any enemies. Agnes is sure that the police won’t bother investigating the murder of a poor German immigrant, and that’s what upsets her the most. Brandt agrees to contact Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy, whom she knows from another case, and ask his help. Together she and Malloy begin to look into the matter. It turns out that Gerda spent her fair share of time at Harmony Hall, a rather disreputable dance hall. They soon learn that several girls, known as Charity Girls, went to the dance hall to get the things in life that they couldn’t begin to afford on their own. In exchange for ‘services rendered,’ they could get clothes, good meals, and so on. It turns out that Harmony Hall is key to finding out what really happened to Gerda.

Vicki Delany’s Klondike Mystery series takes place at the end of the last century in Yukon Territory, and features Fiona MacGillivray, owner of Dawson’s Savoy Dance Hall. At that time, Dawson is a gold-rush boom town, and many different people from all over the world have come to make their fortunes. The Savoy is of course one of the social hubs in the area, so Fiona and her son Angus often find themselves involved when there are conflicts and of course, murders. For example, in Gold Digger, the first novel of the series, the stage at Savoy is the scene of a murder when American news reporter Jack Ireland is killed. There’s no lack of suspects either, since he’d managed to make plenty of enemies even in the short time he’d been in Dawson. Since Fiona herself falls under suspicion, she works to find out who the killer really is.

Now that nightclubs have more or less replaced them, we don’t really see dance halls any more. But they were an important part of social history for many cultures. And they can be very effective settings for crime novels.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Kinks’ Come Dancing.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Vicki Delany, Victoria Thompson

Coca-Cola Got Machines in Every Land*

GlobalisationOne of the facts of life in today’s connected world is globalisation. On one level, that means that some large companies such as McDonald’s® and Nestlé® now have an international reach and outlets all over the world. On another, music, clothing and lifestyle have ‘gone global’ too. Some people argue that this makes quality products and services available to more people. Others argue that globalisation will mean the end of local cultures.

But local cultures are as vibrant as ever, and people find their own ways of preserving what they have. That tension between the global (or even national) and the local is certainly there in real life. We see it in crime fiction too. Let me share just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is an accountant-turned-baker who takes great pride in her work. To her, bread is real:

 

‘I make bread, that’s what I do, that’s what I am.’

 

So in one plot thread of Trick or Treat, there is quite a lot of tension when a bread chain called Best Fresh opens a franchise in the same neighbourhood as Chapman’s own bakery. Although her assistant Jason reassures her that the competition’s food isn’t as fresh and doesn’t taste as good, it’s still a cause for concern. Matters get even worse when a young man jumps to his death from a local roof after an ergot-induced hallucination. It’s soon clear that ergot has gotten into the local supply of flour, and all of the bakeries, including Chapman’s, are suspect. An investigation closes them temporarily and Chapman determines to find out where the tainted flour came from, so as to clear her bakery’s reputation and open up again. Chapman’s determination to preserve her own local bakery is an important part of this novel.

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters also includes an important plot point of tension between global and local. Jerusalem Lane is a unique and historic area of London that has its own culture. It’s got little shops and residents who’ve been there for quite some time. A development company wants to buy up the lane and turn the area into a tourism, shopping and entertainment complex. Economic realities mean that several of Jerusalem Lane’s residents decide to sell. But Meredith Winterbottom, who lives in the lane with her two sisters, refuses; she is determined to stay where she is. Without her property the development project can’t go on as planned, so there’s a great deal of pressure on her to change her mind. Then she dies suddenly in what looks like a successful suicide attempt. But DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla aren’t sure that’s what happened, and they investigate. Several of the development project people are suspect for obvious reasons. So is Meredith’s son Terry, who stands to earn quite a lot by selling his mother’s home. There are other possibilities too. The difference between the distinctive local ‘feel’ of Jerusalem Lane and the more generic development is an important plot thread in the story.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe is well aware of the pressure that globalisation puts on people, especially young people. In The Full Cupboard of Life for instance, Mma. Holonga, the successful owner of a chain of hair braiding salons, is ready to get married. She’s narrowed down her list of suitors to four and she wants Mma. Ramotswe to ‘vet’ them for her. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and takes a closer look at each man. One of them, Mr. ‘Spokes’ Spokesi, is a radio deejay/personality who’s very much attuned to popular culture. He drives a brand-name car, wears brand-name clothes and plays the latest music. He’s also quite attractive to the local young girls and does little to discourage them. And therein lies the problem from Mma. Ramotswe’s point of view. She sees that Spokes has no respect for the traditional ways or for Mma. Holonga and it’s one of the several reasons she doesn’t recommend him to her client. Mma. Ramotswe’s determination to preserve the best of traditional Botswana while still accepting for instance global technology is an important thread through this series.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series features the small town of St. Denis, in France’s Périgord region. The locals are very proud of their own traditional ways of cooking, of baking and of making cheese. They’ve been doing it that way for generations and they’ve developed their own distinctive local culture. So no-one is best pleased at EU regulations that require local food and drink to be prepared in certain ways. On the surface, those regulations seem like sensible ways to avoid bacteria and other toxins. But the locals see those policies as overreaching. And Bruno agrees with them. So at the beginning of Bruno, Chief of Police, he helps them evade EU inspectors who’ve come to take a close look at St. Denis’ market day. That tension, between the regional culture and the larger EU culture isn’t the main plot thread in this novel. But it adds to the story.

There are several novels, too, in which we see how Aboriginal and other Native nations work to preserve their unique lifestyles and cultures in the face of globalisation. It’s a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, global realities such as technology, medicine and so on have a lot of benefits. On the other, they often come with intense pressure to assimilate.

That balance is explored in different ways in Scott Young’s two novels featuring Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak, M. J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk series, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series, and Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series, among others. In those novels, we see for instance, local and distinctive ways of interacting, of using language, of cooking, eating and dressing, and traditional kinds of hunting. We also see the global influence of radio, of Western medicine and of technology such as planes. There’s also the unfortunate global influence of drugs and alcohol. The balance between adopting what’s best of global realities and maintaining a unique local culture is a thread that runs through these series.

Globalisation is a definite force in modern life. Like anything else it has its benefits and its disadvantages. The key seems to be finding ways to preserve what is unique and local without giving up the good parts of globalisation. That’s not easy to do, and it’s just that tension that can add to a crime novel or series. I’ve only given a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chumbawamba’s And in a Nutshell.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Barry Maitland, Dana Stabenow, Kerry Greenwood, M.J. McGrath, Martin Walker, Scott Young, Stan Jones

I’m Gonna Let it Shine*

This Little Light of MineThere are people who try to do good, sometimes against very difficult odds. They know they’re taking real risks at times to do what most of us would agree is the right thing, but they do it anyway. Certainly those people exist in real life, and the world is better because of them. But they also exist in crime fiction. The trouble with writing such characters is that if they seem too perfect, it’s hard to accept them as authentic. So it’s important that they be realistic. But when they’re well-drawn, those characters give us hope. They add to a story or series too.

You’ll notice that I’m not going to mention sleuths or other protagonists who are like that. They’re out there of course, but the examples in this post will be characters who aren’t protagonists.

Admittedly that line between protagonist and ‘not the protagonist’ can be a little blurry at times. For example, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we meet attorney Atticus Finch. He lives and works in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama at a time when racism was both institutionalised and rigidly enforced. When Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White, there’s a lot of pressure to assume that he’s guilty and turn to ‘vigilante justice.’ But Finch is unwilling to do that. For one thing, he’s not entirely certain that Robinson is guilty. For another, even if he is, Robinson deserves a fair trial, like every other citizen. So Finch takes the case despite the fact that the town will likely turn against him. He knows that his choice to defend Robinson may have terrible consequences, but he also knows that it’s the right thing to do. So he goes ahead with his preparations, and in the end, he finds out the truth about the Robinson/Ewell case.

One of the recurring characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series is Sister Mary. Among her other projects, she is in charge of the Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen that delivers food, non-alcoholic drinks, blankets, clothes and medicine to Melbourne’s street people. She is a tireless advocate for those who’ve been forgotten or at least not served by the system, and she persuades, cajoles and bullies for donations, for volunteers and for the necessary legal permits to undertake her work. She’s got a strong enough personality that no-one dares to disobey her if I can put it that way. Sister Mary is down-to-earth and practical. She’s neither smug nor self-righteous, and she doesn’t expect that anyone will subscribe to her religious beliefs. That doesn’t matter to her as much as does helping those in need in Melbourne, and everyone respects her for what she accomplishes.

Sara Paretsky’s Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel is another example of those who are forces for good despite the odds. She and her family escaped the Nazis and she ended up in the US. Since then she’s moved to Chicago and is now the close friend of Paretsky’s sleuth V.I. Warshawski. Herschel works with those who are least well served by the medical care system and is always willing to lend her medical expertise where it’s needed, whether or not the patient can pay.  She’s an advocate for children’s health, especially those children from low socioeconomic groups. She has a strong personality, but she’s not self-important about what she does. Lotty Herschel does what needs to be done, as she sees it.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in 1979 Argentina, at a time when the government was controlled by a military junta. Anyone suspected of disagreeing with the government is liable to ‘disappear,’ and very little attention is paid to these abuses of power. Against this backdrop, Buenos Aires police officer Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano gets a new case. He’s called out one morning to a riverbank where there are reports of two bodies left there overnight. The bodies bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lescano is well aware of the consequences if he questions those murders. But to his surprise there is also a third body. This one doesn’t have the same hallmarks and it’s soon clear that someone is using ‘disappearances’ to cover up a murder. The victim is successful pawnbroker and moneylender Elías Biterman and Lescano begins to investigate to find out who the killer is. There is a great deal of pressure on Lescano to ‘rubber stamp’ the case and leave it alone, but he’s unwilling to do that. In the end, he does find out the truth. And there are people who risk terrible consequences to do the right thing and help him. One is forensic expert Dr. Fuseli. He provides Lescano very helpful and important information about the murder at great risk to himself.

And then there’s Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Emma la Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out what happened to her brother Jacobus. Then a member of the South African Army’s Nature and Environmental Conservation Unit, he disappeared twenty years earlier after a skirmish with poachers at Kruger National Park. Everyone thought he was killed in that incident, but Emma has good reason to believe he may still be alive. If that’s true, she wants to know where he’s been and what he’s been doing. Lemmer takes the job and goes with Emma to the Lowveld, where they start asking questions. Those questions stir up matters that some very nasty and powerful people would rather not discuss, so both Lemmer and Emma find themselves in terrible danger. In the end though, Lemmer discovers what really happened to Jacobus le Roux. One of the people who figures in that true story is Vincent ‘Pego’ Mashego, who worked with Jacobus and who knows what happened when he disappeared. It turns out that Pego took incredible risks to do the right thing, and has demonstrated quite a lot of courage.

In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, we meet Jason Barnes, a teenager who happens to be riding a bus when he observes a terrible incident of bullying. Three other teenagers have boarded the same bus and are harassing fellow passenger Luke Murray. Despite the danger to him, Jason intervenes and the bullying stops for the moment. Then Luke gets off the bus and so do his harassers. So does Jason. The bullying starts again and Jason steps in once more to stop it. This starts the fight anew and it lasts all the way to Jason’s yard, where Luke is gravely wounded and Jason fatally stabbed. One of the questions his parents have to wrestle with is why he stepped in instead of protecting his own life. At the same time, they respect the fact that he did the right thing in a situation where others didn’t.

People who take truly grave risks to do good remind the rest of us of what is possible. When those characters are written as human beings, they can add much to a story. I’ve only had space here to mention a few; I’m sure you can think of lots more. Which do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Henry Dixon Loes’ This Little Light of Mine.

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Filed under Cath Staincliffe, Deon Meyer, Ernesto Mallo, Harper Lee, Kerry Greenwood, Sara Paretsky

I’ve Found a Paradise That’s Trouble Proof*

RetreatsLet’s face it: life gets a bit much sometimes. When that happens, it’s nice to have a sort of retreat – a special place to go to get away from it all. An interesting post from author and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has got me thinking about how many fictional characters have those kinds of special places. Pop culture fans will know for instance that Superman has his famous Fortress of Solitude. And if you look at crime fiction, you see that there are plenty of characters who have special retreats like that. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we meet James Sheppard, doctor for the village of King’s Abbot. Even in a peaceful village, life can get busy, especially for a doctor, so Sheppard has a special retreat in his house. He’s built a workroom where even the maid

 

‘…is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.’

 

Sheppard gets drawn into a case of murder when his friend, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd, is stabbed in his study one evening. The prime suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced that he’s innocent, so she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot is impressed with Flora’s sense of conviction so he agrees to look into the matter. In the end, Poirot finds that Ackroyd knew more than was safe for him to know about one particular villager.

Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate is the story of the shooting murder of Native activist Morton Cavendish. Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP is a witness to the killing, and happened to know Cavendish anyway. So he’s determined to find the killer. He’s even more fixed on the investigation when it turns out that Cavendish’s death could be related to another case Matteesie’s working on: the disappearance of a Cessna with three men aboard. One of the people of interest in this case is Cavendish’s son William. William may or may not be involved in either or both incidents. But it’s likely that he has a lot of information no matter how innocent he may be. So Matteesie wants to find him. It turns out that William has a special place – a retreat he’s had since adolescence – where he goes sometimes just to be by himself. That retreat turns out to play a key role in the story.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn is shocked and in grief when her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during a political speech at a community picnic. It’s bad enough that Boychuk was a friend, but what makes things worse is that this brings back the murder of Kilbourn’s husband Ian, whose loss she still mourns. As a way of dealing with her loss, Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuck. As she gathers material for her book, Kilbourn also finds herself investigating the murder. As it turns out, Boychuk’s death had nothing really do to with his political views, and everything to do with his past. Kilbourn’s home has a ‘granny flat’ above the garage, and she uses that both as an office and as a retreat. She spends her share of time in the granny flat and in this book, that fact plays an important role in what happens.

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice introduces us to retired school principal Thea Farmer. She bought what she intended as a retreat in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, and was planning it as her dream home. She’s not much of a one for people, and what she wants most of all is to be away from as many of them as possible. But financial issues and poor decisions mean that she has to give up her dream home and settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Thea’s perfect retreat is soon purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington. Thea refers to these new neighbours as ‘the invaders;’ not only have they purchased the home she considers her own, but they have also taken away her sense of retreat and privacy. Despite her intentions to have nothing to do with ‘the invaders,’ Thea finds herself getting involved in their lives when Frank’s niece Kim moves in. Thea reluctantly warms up to Kim and sees that she has real promise as a writer. So when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to do something about it. Special places and retreats play an important part in this story.

Many other sleuths also have retreats and special places they go when they want to get away. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he spends his share of time in his orchid room. And everyone in his life knows better than to disturb him when he’s communing with his plants. He does love the orchids, but he also uses to the time to get away.

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux has his share of difficult times and trauma, both because of his personal life and because of his job as a New Iberia, Louisiana cop. He gets away from it all by taking his boat out and going fishing. It’s his escape – his special place.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She has her home and bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Although she doesn’t go looking for mysteries to solve, they seem to find her. And even when they don’t, she’s kept quite busy with her business, her relationship with her lover Daniel Cohen, and her duties as servant to three cats. So sometimes Chapman likes to get away and relax. When she does, she doesn’t have far to go. Insula has a lovely rooftop garden where Chapman takes a glass of wine or a drink and enjoys the view. The rooftop is also the scene of some terrific get-togethers of the building’s residents.

And of course, there’s D.S. Nelson’s own Blake Heatherington. As the series featuring him begins, he’s a milliner whose family has been in the business for a long time. He understands hats and the kinds of personalities that are best suited for different kinds of hats. You might say that hat-making is in his blood. So even when he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day business of millinery, Heatherington enjoys creating hats. And he’s got a special retreat for just that purpose. He goes there to try new creations, to think over his cases and to be alone with his thoughts.

Do you have a special sort of retreat like that? If you’re a writer, does your protagonist?

Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration! Folks, now that you’ve been kind enough to stop here, please consider making your next stop D.S. Nelson’s terrific site. It’s got good conversation about writing and some terrific collaborative short stories, among lots of other great things.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Up On the Roof, made popular by the Drifters.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Scott Young, Virginia Duigan

Father I Put My Life in Your Hands*

ConventThere 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

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Filed under Ariana Franklin, Boris Akunin, Catherine Aird, Gail Frazer, Kerry Greenwood, Margaret Frazer, Mary Monica Pulver Kuhfeld, Peter Tremayne, Sister Carol Anne O'Marie