As you’ll know if you’ve been kind enough to visit this blog before, I live in California. One of the important influences in the history of this state has been its missions. Spanish missionaries set up a network of missions, each within a day’s walk of the last. Today, many places still bear the names of those original missions. San Diego, Santa Ana, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and San Francisco are just a few examples. I live within walking distance (well, it’s a long walk, but still…) of the mission at San Luis Rey de Fancia.
Missions and missionaries, of course, have around for a very long time, Sometimes, they’ve been responsible for some horrible things. Other times, they’ve provided food, clothes, medicine, and more to those who needed them. For better or for worse, missionaries have played an important role in real life, and we see them in crime fiction, too.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we are introduced to Miss Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. She’s returned from India, where she’s been working with the Zenana Mission there. Now, one of her goals is to get donations to that charity. She gets drawn into a case of murder when she visits a dentist, Henry Morley, who is shot in his surgery. Oddly enough, that evening, Miss Sainsbury Seale goes missing. And another patient dies of what looks like an accidental overdose of anaesthetic. Hercule Poirot goes to the same dentist, so Chief Inspector Japp asks for his insight in making sense of the case. Miss Sainsbury Seale’s missionary work is not the reason that the dentist is killed. But it adds an interesting dimension to her character.
The main plot of Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time concerns the disappearance of Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, an archaeologist who was researching the Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon. On the surface, it looks as though her disappearance is connected to illegal digging in that area. But it turns out that there’s a more personal motive involved. In the course of the investigation, Lieutenant Joe Leahorn of the Navajo Tribal Police finds some notes and a catalogue of antiquities that may be linked to a man named Slick Nakai. He’s an evangelist missionary who travels around the Reservation holding religious revivals. It turns out that he’s bought a few pots and other items from time to time, and he may have information about who’s been digging them illegally. Slick Nakai’s information doesn’t solve the case. But he’s an interesting character, and missionaries like him are a part of the landscape in the American Southwest.
Missionaries don’t just do their work in rural areas, of course. There are also many missionaries in large cities. For example, in Anna Jaquiery’s The Lying-Down Room, Paris Police Commandant Serge Morel is faced with a strange case. Isabelle Dufour has been found dead in her bed, wearing a red wig and extra makeup. There aren’t a lot of clues at first, but there are potential witnesses. Shortly before she was killed, the victim had lodged a complaint with the local police about missionaries coming to her door and leaving pamphlets. Three other women, Elisabeth Guillou, Marie Latour and Irina Volkoff, also lodged complaints. And not long afterwards, Elisabeth Guillou is found dead, also with a red wig and extra makeup. The only link among these women is the visit by the missionaries, so Morel searches for them. There doesn’t seem to be a motive for murder, but Morel is sure that these evangelists are the key to the case. After a time, he learns who they are. Now, it’s just a matter of finding them…
Loraine Scott’s NYC: A Mission to Die For takes place in New York City. In it, we meet Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Senior Elder Anthony Winter and his wife, Summer. They’re missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and they’re on a 23-month stay in New York. One day, they come back to their offices after a bit of time off only to discover the body of Joseph Engstrom. He wasn’t a missionary, but he visited the place occasionally, so the staff knew him. Winter is a former LAPD police detective, so he knows the routine of police investigation. He’d just as soon let the local police handle the case. Summer, though, wants some answers. She starts asking questions, and the Winters soon find that this case is much more complex than it may seem on the surface.
There are a few mentions of missionaries and their work in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. Le Fanu lives and works in 1920’s India, mostly in Madras (today’s Chennai). It’s the last decades of the British Raj, and there’s agitation for home rule. But the British are still in charge, and several UK religious groups have missions in India. There are also doctors and other medical professionals who work among the very poorest. As we learn in A Greater God, there are also missions from other countries, including the US. It’s interesting, too, that there is still at this time a push not just to help those in need, but to convert those who are Hindu to Christianity.
There’s an interesting look at missionary life in India in Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. In that novel, we are introduced to Captain Sam Wyndham, who’s just arrived in 1919 Kolkata/Calcutta to take up his duties with the police. He’s not been in the job long when the body of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal, is found in an alley behind a brothel. Wyndham and his team soon find that there are several possibilities. One is that something might have happened at the brothel. Another is that this might be a politically-motivated murder, since there is activism and sometimes worse against the British. Wyndham discovers that one of MacAuley’s old friends, Reverend Gunn, is a missionary at nearby St. Andrew’s Church, and he wants the man’s perspective on MacAuley. It turns out that Gunn is useful source of information, both on the victim and on the situation between the British and the indigenous people.
Missions and missionaries are a diverse group of people. They’ve been around for a very long time and have had a profound influence. It’s not always been positive, but it’s undeniable. So, it makes sense that missionaries would set up their churches and revival tents in crime fiction, too.
ps. The ‘photo is of the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s Two by Two.