An 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.