For many people, places of worship aren’t just for prayer and ritual. They also serve an important social function. People come together at church halls, synagogues, mosques and temples for films, talks, celebrations, meals, and sometimes secular events like book sales. Even those who aren’t observant sometimes enjoy the company and the social experience.
You might argue that churches and other houses of worship used to serve a more important social function than they do now. But even today, they’re important in many communities. So it’s only natural that they show up in crime fiction, too. Whether you have a set of religious beliefs or none at all, it’s hard to deny the social role of churches and other such places.
As fans know, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple lives in the village of St. Mary Mead, where the church serves important social functions. Of course the vicar leads services on Sundays, but there are also teas, craft and artwork sales and other events. And Miss Marple makes use of them all to hear the local talk, ask questions and get to know people when they’re off their guard.
We also see that side of the local church in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her series featuring retired English teacher Myrtle Clover. Although she’s in her eighties, Myrtle has no intention of being ‘put out to pasture.’ But her son, Red, who’s the local police chief, has other ideas. He loves his mother, but he’d like to see her take her ease, watch soap operas, and fill in crossword puzzles like other retirees. He thinks he can help her along by ‘volunteering’ her to serve on the local church’s Altar Guild, as well as signing her up for the United Methodist Women’s social group. Needless to say, Myrtle isn’t happy at all about this, and comes up with a creative way to express her disapproval. Still, she goes to the church. When she gets there, she discovers the body of real-estate developer Parke Stockard. Myrtle wants to prove that she’s not ready to be shunted aside yet, so she decides to find out who killed the victim. And she soon learns that there are plenty of possibilities. Parke was both arrogant and malicious, and had made plenty of local enemies.
Churches also serve as important social support groups. For example, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Carl Lee Hailey is arrested for the murders of Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. On the one hand, he’s clearly guilty. There are witnesses, including a sheriff’s deputy who was wounded in the incident. On the other, there’s a lot of sympathy for Hailey. The two victims had recently beaten and raped his ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and left her for dead. Plenty of people privately think they’d have done the same thing Hailey did. Still, he’s committed murder. So Hailey asks his friend, attorney Jake Brigance to defend him. In one plot thread of the novel, the Hailey family gets a lot of social, financial, and other support from their church, even from those who have very little money themselves.
Places of worship also provide a sort of cultural as well as social connection that goes beyond the ritual. We see that, for instance, in several of Tony Hillerman’s novels. His two main protagonists are Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, both of whom are Navajo, and both of whom are members of the Navajo Tribal Police. For the Navajo Nation, gathering for ritual also involves a lot of social interaction. Traditional Navajo rituals can take several days, so there are shared meals, catching up with people one hasn’t seen, and more. Many rituals are undergone in people’s homes, but there are also events at local Navajo chapter houses. Whether the occasion is a rite of passage or a secular event, it’s an opportunity to connect with people who may be otherwise very far-flung. And for Chee and Leaphorn, these gatherings offer the chance to talk to people and find out all sorts of information.
Many synagogues have social halls where people meet for book discussions, lectures, holiday parties, or to break ritual fasts together. We see those social gatherings in Faye Kellerman’s series featuring Rina Lazarus and Detective Peter Decker. For instance, in The Ritual Bath, here’s how Rina’s son Jake describes Purim (the Feast of Esther):
‘You get to dress up in a costume and the shul [synagogue] has a big Purim party after they read the megillah [the story of Queen Esther].’
The synagogue isn’t just a place for worship, although that’s an important aspect of it. It’s also a place for social gatherings and the development of a sense of community.
In Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, we are introduced to Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government. They are called in to investigate when the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the bottom of the Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. The CPS is generally concerned with hate crimes and community relations; so, at first, there doesn’t seem a reason for the CPS to be involved. But Khattak has learned that Drayton may actually be Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal who was known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If he is, then there’s an important question of how and why Canada admitted a war criminal. There is evidence that Drayton was Krstić, so one lead for Khattak and Getty is the local Bosnian mosque. In this way, they get to know a little about the members of that community. The mosque serves not just as a place for worship for them. It also serves important social and cultural purposes.
And that’s the thing about places of worship. Apart from their importance as places for religious ritual, they also serve social and cultural functions as well. And that means they can be important for fictional sleuths.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dion DiMucci’s Written on the Subway Wall/Little Star.