Sister Mary Used To Be a Nun*

Former NunsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about women who join a convent, but then later, decide to leave it. Nuns who choose to leave the convent have to re-accustom themselves to the outside world, and that’s not always easy. But they have an interesting perspective on both the religious life and the secular life. There are several such characters in crime fiction. Here are few; I know you’ll think of others.

In Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body, Inspector D.C. Sloan and his assistant, Constable William Crosby, investigate a mysterious death at the Convent of St. Anselm. Sister Mary St. Anne (Sister Anne)’s body has been found at the bottom of the basement staircase, and it’s soon clear that this was no accident. One of the lines of investigation that Sloan has to follow is the network of relationships among the nuns. To get a perspective on that, and on the victim’s interactions with the others, he turns to the former Sister Bertha, now once again using her birth name of Eileen Lome. She’s been out of the convent less than a month, and still finds everything very, very different. What she tells the Sloan doesn’t solve the murder. But it does give an important perspective on Sister Anne’s personality and background. And it provides readers with an interesting look at what it’s like to leave the convent.

Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest is the story of a staunchly Catholic Irish family, headed by a strong-willed matriarch known only as Mam. Mam’s adult sons Kevin and Patrick are married and have their own families. Her daughter Dee Dee has committed what, for Mam, is the terrible sin of getting divorced. Her daughter Veronica lives at home and cares for her. The whole family is rocked when Mam’s daughter Bridget ‘Bridie’ returns to the family after ten years in a convent. Financial problems have meant the closure of the convent, and Bridie really has nowhere else to go. Besides having to adjust to the outside world again, Bridie’s going to find it extremely difficult to tell the truth to Mam, since it was Mam who was determined she’d enter the convent in the first place. As it happens, Dee Dee also returns to the family, hoping to introduce them to her new fiancé. All the ingredients are there for a family feud, and that’s exactly what happens. Then one day, Dee Dee takes a tragic fall down a staircase and dies. But was it an accident? And if it wasn’t, which family member is responsible?

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux will know that, in Crusader’s Cross, he investigates the 50-year-old murder of a prostitute. In the course of that, he goes up against the powerful and wealthy Chalon family. And it turns out, they’ve had some run-ins before with one Sister Molly Boyle, who runs a group that builds houses for the poor and homeless. So he follows up that lead by meeting Sister Molly and talking to her. That interview is the beginning of what turns into a romance between them. Fans will know, too, that she later leaves the convent and becomes Robicheaux’s wife.

In Gene Kerrigan’s Rage, Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Garda Rose Cheney investigate the murder Emmet Sweetman, a banker who was murdered, execution-style, in his own home. In the meantime, Vincent Naylor has recently been released from prison. Now he re-connects with his girlfriend, Michelle Flood, his brother Noel, and some of his friends. Together, they plan a heist that will set them all up financially. The target is to be a van belonging to Protectica, a security company that transports money among banks. The Naylor brothers and their friends duly pull off the heist. But then there’s a tragedy that changes everything. In the midst of it all, and a link between these cases, is a former nun named Maura Cody. She has her own secrets, and her own private reasons for leaving the convent. Something she sees draws her into Tidey’s investigations, and makes her vulnerable. So Tidey and Cheney determine to do everything possible to keep her safe.

There are also some series with former nuns as protagonist. For example, there’s Alice Loweecey’s series featuring Giulia Falcone, whom we meet in Force of Habit. In that novel, we learn that she’s recently left the convent and gone to work for Driscoll Investigations, which is run by former cop Frank Driscoll. The main plot in this novel features wealthy Blake Parker and his fiancée, who’ve been getting some disturbing ‘gifts.’ But woven throughout the novel is also Falcone’s process of getting used to the outside world again. As the series goes on, she gets more accustomed to it, and more streetwise, and that evolution of her character adds a layer to the novels. Oh, and it’s also worth noting that Loweecey herself is a former nun.

There’s also Lee Harris’ (AKA Syrell Leahy) Christine Bennett series. Bennett is a former nun who lived at St. Stephen’s Convent, and taught English. Now she’s moved to Oakwood, in upstate New York, and lives in her now-deceased Aunt Margaret’s house. In The Good Friday Murder, where we first meet her, Bennet attends a town meeting where one point of contention is the planned relocation of Greenwillow Institution to the town. For Bennett, this has personal implications, since her cousin, Gene, is a resident in the institution, and she is his legal guardian. Through Gene, Bennett has gotten to know a pair of savant twins with mental retardation who were convicted many years earlier of murdering their mother. Now senior citizens, they’ve become friends to Bennett, and she doesn’t think they’re guilty of murder. The institution needs support for its plan to move to Oakwood, and Bennett is a connection between the two. So she agrees to look into that old murder case to try to exonerate the twins. Along with the murder investigation, readers also get a look at what it’s like to readjust to the outside world after a long time ‘away.’

There are plenty of other crime novels and series that include this sort of character. Which ones have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog visit be Clothes in Books? A treasure trove of posts about clothes and popular culture in fiction, and what it all means about us, awaits you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jewel Kilcher’s Everybody Needs Someone Sometime.



Filed under Alice Loweecey, Catherine Aird, Gene Kerrigan, James Lee Burke, Lee Harris, Marian Babson, Syrell Leahy

31 responses to “Sister Mary Used To Be a Nun*

  1. Not the right example here, Margot, but Julie Andrews’ character in “The Sound of Music” comes to mind. At least it’s based on a musical book by playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Of course, I discovered that only recently.

    • It may not be crime fiction, Prashant, but it’s certainly an example of a film that was adapted from a novel.

      • This story has fascinated me since I was a little girl and appeared in several of the stage versions of the show. The Sound of Music purported to tell the true story of the Von Trapp singers, although it was vastly changed from the factual story. Actually, it was based on a 1956 German film, called The Trapp Family, which had led to the Broadway stage musical The Sound of Music, then was further adapted for the US film. The US versions were set much closer to World War II than the real story. In real life, Maria was born in 1905, joined the convent in 1924 and went to teach one of the Von Trapp children in 1926. She married the captain in 1927, so they had been married 11 years by the time they fled Germany in 1938. They had three children of their own, two born overseas and one in the US. There are several books written by family members, including Maria herself, whose 1949 book The Trapp Family Singers was the original inspiration for the 1956 German film.

        • I’ve always been fascinated by the story, too, Caron! And thank you for all of that detail. I read Maria Von Trapp’s autobiography and really found it interesting. And in fact, I once went to the place in Vermont where the family still has property. It’s a time-share thing, now, but you get to hear the story there, too. It’s just such a great saga, isn’t it?

        • Oh, I would love to visit their place in Vermont. I’d also like to go to Salzburg, Austria, of course!

        • Wouldn’t that be a fantastic trip, Caron?! I can personally vouch for Stowe, Vermont. It’s lovely. It’s pricey, but still, gorgeous.

  2. Col

    I loved Kerrigan’s Rage and enjoyed a few books from JLB with Dave Robicheaux. I can’t recall too much else in my reading,

  3. Great post Margot andcthere’s some cracking book titles in there. Completely off piste but the whole way through this post all I had was the theme tune to the Father Dowling Mysteries lol.

  4. Tim

    Hmmmm. I wonder what it is about crime fiction and the Catholic church. I cannot think of another religious group from whom writers have so often appropriated characters for their fiction. What’s up with that?

    • Very interesting question, Tim! Of course, the Catholic Church has been a big part of many cultures for a long time. Even so, it is a fascinating connection, isn’t it?

  5. This bring to mind (though it’s about a current, not former, nun) Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akuman, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield. This novel is the first in a detective series featuring the fabulous Sister Pelagia as the unlikely amateur sleuth. It is set in the Russian town of Zavolzhsk at the end of the 19th century, which adds even more interest. Akuman has the strangely beguiling habit of beginning and ending the book in the middle of a sentence.

    • He does, doesn’t he? I wonder why he does that, Caron. Those are good stories, and I’m very glad you mentioned them. I should do a spotlight on one of them sometime – I really should.

  6. kathy d

    Well, I’m writing a bit of a variation on this theme. The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant starts out with the body of a dead nun. The mystery: She has a snake tattoo on her torso up to her neck. Who was she and why the tattoo?
    A fascinating story with interesting insights into life in Florence in the late 1400s, written with a contemporary touch.

    • That does sound really interesting, Kathy. There certainly aren’t that many nuns with snake tattoos on them, I would guess. And it sounds like an interesting context for a novel. Thanks for mentioning it.

  7. Interesting post, Margot. I had never thought about the adjustment nun who leave the order would have to make. You always give us some unique and interesting things to ponder. You make it fun to look at books in a different light. 🙂

    • Thank you, Mason *Blush.* I”m very glad you like what you find here. And you’re right: nuns really do have make a lot of adjustments when they re-enter the larger world.

  8. I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the choice to make this lifestyle choice (and, as you point out, the decision to leave). Not, maybe, so much the religious element as the cloistering away. I have a feeling, though, if I gave it a go, writing murder mysteries while in semi-seclusion might be frowned on. 🙂

    • 😆 It probably would be, Elizabeth! Still, you make a really interesting point about that decision to be cloistered away. It’s certainly not a life for everyone, and I find it really interesting, myself.

  9. kathyd

    Hmmm, now I wonder if any nuns or former nuns do write mysteries.

  10. Here’s a site with all kinds of information on fictional sleuths from the clergy, priests, nuns, etc. (including ex-nun Catherine LeVendeur).

  11. Thanks for the shoutout Magot, and as ever I am wildly impressed by your range of examples – most people might summon up a few books about nuns, but you can have the incredibly narrow category of ex-nuns! Kudos. My original subject was Victor Canning’s Birdcage, a splendid thriller kicking off with a nun leaving a convent.

  12. kathyd

    Well, I looked at the recommended website and was reminded of the Sister Fidelma books, written by Peter Tremayne. Haven’t read any, but I would like to do that.
    Also, the most recent comments there were dated 2008, so that is probably why Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries starring the Rev. Clare Fergusson aren’t listed.

  13. tracybham

    Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest sounds very interesting, Margot, never heard of that one. I do have Rage by Kerrigan and Force of Habit by Loweecey and I should get to reading those.

    • Untimely Guest is really an interesting look at family dynamics, Tracy. It also gives an interesting perspective on what it’s like to fit back in with one’s family after being in a convent. As to Rage and Force of Habit, I think both are very well-written (‘though very different sorts of books). If you read them, I hope you’ll like them.

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