Friday, November 20, 2009

Murder at Worship

As I’ve often said in this blog, well-written crime fiction reflects real lives and real people. It also acknowledges the forces that motivate people and underlie what they do, and the things that are important to them. For many people, religious faith is one of the most important facets of their lives. Of course, many people don’t strictly observe the religion they profess, and many don’t profess any religion at all. Yet religious tradition has been one of the most important driving forces in human history, and it’s woven into nearly every culture. Many people are raised with some sort of religious education, and religious beliefs help to shape what people think and how and why they act as they do. So it’s only natural that religion plays an important role in some very well-written mystery novels.

Sometimes, the mystery itself has to do with religion and religious beliefs. That’s the case in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. In The Da Vinci Code, Harvard professor Robert Langdon is recruited to help solve the murder of Louvre curator Jacques Saunière. The position of Saunière’s body, as well as coded symbols he left behind, are clues to Langdon that this murder is connected to the ancient Knights of Templar, and related to the centuries-old search for the Holy Grail. In Angels and Demons, Langdon is again recruited, this time to help solve the murder of respected physicist Leonardo Vetra. Langdon finds that Vetra had a symbol branded on his chest that represents an old secret society, the Illuminati. The Illuminati was a group of scientists and other Enlightenment thinkers who opposed the Catholic Church’s insistence on dogma. It seems that the Illuminati still exists, and have stolen antimatter from the lab where Vetra worked, which they’re planning to use to destroy the Vatican. The conflict between science and religion is a major theme of Angels and Demons, and as Langdon searches for clues to find the antimatter before it can be detonated, Brown invites the reader to consider the limits of religion and the limits of science.

Steve Berry’s The Templar Legacy has a similar focus on religion. In that novel, Cotton Malone, a former U.S. Justice Department operative, has retired to become an antiquarian book dealer. He’s called back into action by his former supervisor, Stepanie Nelle, who’s traveling in Europe on a quest to find a legendary treasure and secret lore that was supposed to have been hidden before the original Knights Templar were destroyed in the 13th Century. Malone joins Nelle in Europe, and becomes intrigued by the mystery when a purse-snatcher who tries to mug Nelle commits suicide by jumping from a tower. Malone’s sure there’s something wrong with this supposed suicide, and goes in search of the clues that will lead him to the secrets that the Knights Templar left behind them.

Religion also plays a critical role in Zoe Ferraris’ Finding Nouf, in which Palestinian desert guide Nayir al-Sharqi is hired by the wealthy Shrawi family to find sixteen-year-old Nouf, who mysteriously disappeared just before she was to be married. When Sharqi finds Nouf’s body, he works with laboratory technician Katya Hijazi to find out the truth behind Nouf’s death. It turns out that Islamic traditions play an important role in Nouf’s life, her impending wedding, and her death.

In Kathy Reichs’ Devil Bones, Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan is called in to help investigate the skull of a teenaged girl that’s found by a plumber in an unused basement. Near the skull are animal remains and other indications of some sort of religious ritual. A local evangelical preacher starts the rumor that rumor that the remains are evidence of devil worship, and whips many of the townspeople into a frenzy to find the “Satanists.” The reality, of course, turns out to be quite different.

In some mystery novels, the sleuth is a member of the clergy, and that membership is woven throughout the story. For example, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who lives at Shrewsbury Abbey with his fellow monks. The Benedictine rules govern Cadfael’s daily life, and sometimes, in the mysteries he soles. In A Morbid Taste for Bones, for instance, Cadfael goes on a journey to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to recover the bones of St. Winifred and return with them to the abbey. The expedition is met with hostility by the locals, who regard St. Winifred as their protectress; it only makes the situation worse that the monks (except for Cadfael himself, who’s Welsh) are British. Matters come to a head when Lord Rhysart, who’s been the leader of the opposition to the monks, is murdered. Cadfael must solve the mystery of Rhysart’s murder so the monks can return to the Abbey.

Ralph McInerny created a series of mystery novels featuring Father Roger Dowling, a Catholic priest who serves in a poor Chicago parish. In those novels, Dowling solves murders that are frequently related to his parishioners, fellow priests and other members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. Religious themes are frequently woven through the novels, and Dowling frequently discusses theology. The same is true of Harry Kemelman’s creation, Rabbi David Small. Rabbi Small serves the Conservative Jewish congregation of Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts. As he solves mysteries, he frequently shares Jewish theology and Talmudic teachings. The novels also frequently features subplots having to do with congregational matters, so a strong thread of Judaism is woven throughout the stories.

Even when the sleuth’s not officially a member of the clergy, many mystery novels make references to religion, and religious traditions play a role in the way the characters behave. That’s true of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series. Chee is studying to be a Yata’ali, a Navajo “singer” or healer/shaman. Navajo religious beliefs color many of Chee’s actions and impressions as he goes about his job, and several of Hillerman’s novels (The Ghostway, Dance Hall of the Dead and Sacred Clowns are just a few examples) treat religious themes.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders), Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of his dentist, as well as the mysterious disappearance of the one of the dentist’s other patients. The authorities believe that these events are connected with attempts to get rid of Alistair Blunt, a leading financial tycoon. Blunt invites Poirot to spend a week-end with him at his country home, and on the Sunday of that weekend, Poirot accompanies the Blunt family to church services. In the middle of the service, while the congregation is singing a hymn, Poirot suddenly perceives the truth behind the dentist’s murder. Struck by his idea, he doesn’t notice that everyone has finished the hymn and sat down. It’s a comical scene, but it highlights the integral role that religion and churchoing play in Christie’s society. Several other of her novels also refer to religion, and Church of England traditions are frequently mentioned. She often mentions, too, that Poirot is a practicing Roman Catholic.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series, Reverend Herbert Jones is an important character in the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. He appears in several of the novels, as the town’s social life often includes church events. What’s interesting about Jones’ characters is that he often has discussions about religion, faith and Christianity with Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth. He’s not a sleuth himself, but he sometimes give “Harry” a very helpful perspective.

In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, Myrtle Clover, Craig’s sleuth, is signed up against her will to join the Altar Guild and United Methodist Women, groups at her local church. Her son, Red, who signed his mother up for these groups in a misguided attempt to help her stay busy, is repaid for his efforts when a garden of garish gnomes pops up in Myrtle’s yard overnight, just to make him angry. Myrtle’s dragged them out to embarrass her son. That morning, she stomps over to the United Methodist church to begin her duties, only to find the dead body of Parke Stockard, a recent arrival who’s succeeded in alienating nearly everyone in town. Myrtle decides to investigate the murder, just to prove she’s not ready to be put out to pasture yet.

Religion has played a pivotal role in human life for thousands of years, and it does in crime fiction, too. It affects characters’ thinking and behavior, and sometimes, it’s an integral part of the mystery. Do you think that religious themes and traditions and mentions of religion add to a mystery? Do you think they’re too controversial?


  1. Although I am not a particularly religious person I have always been fascinated by the subject. I chose lots of history of religion courses when I did my Arts degree all those years ago and I am a sucker for religious-themed crime fiction. I like reading books where religion plays a major part in the plot. Susan R Sloan's ACT OF GOD has stayed with me for years and a more recent read like L J Seallars' THE SEX CLUB is good too (and isn't about what you might think from the title). Although I do have my own beliefs I don't mind whether religion is depicted in a positive light or not - I just like to see the issues explored.

    I am listening to Ellis Peters' A MORBID TASTE FOR BONES right now - I can't recall having read any of his books before but I've watched the TV series so I feel that I know the characters. It's a good read so far.

  2. Bernadette - I'm so glad you're enjoying A Morbid Taste for Bones so far. I know that everyone's taste is different, but I thought it was a very well-written mystery.

    I think a lot of people are fascinated by religion, whether or not they're observant themselves. It's played such an important role in history and still plays a vital role in lots of people's lives; it's no wonder it's got such a hold on our imagination.

    Thanks for mentioning the Seallars' book; I haven't read that one, and now you've intrigued me : ). I'm going to have to add that to my TBR list.

  3. Wow! Thanks for the mention. :)

    I do, obviously, like religious references in books. My thinking is that it would be unrealistic not to include them in my setting (the American South.) Sometimes I'm poking fun at church, but I hope the readers see it's gentle and not intended otherwise.

    I also feel that if characters were facing life threatening situations or if the victim was close to them, that they would be looking for a little bit of spiritual guidance.

    But this is all going on in the background. I don't like to focus on religion in the foreground.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - You're absolutely right. Religion and religous practice are so deeply rooted in many cultures (and the American South is definitely one of them) that to ignore that aspect of life is to miss a critical part of the setting, the characters' thinking and behavior, and the culture. So it makes sense to include mentions of religion when one's writing mysteries that take place in those settings.

    As you say, though, people often turn to the spiritual during times of sorrow and crisis, and there's little more sorrowful than the murder of someone one's loved. So it makes sense and can add to a story when characters who've lost someone react by seeking out spiritual comfort.

    ...and it's my great pleasure to mention your work. Folks, Elizabeth has written a funny, engaging and smart cozy, Pretty is as Pretty Dies! Read about it here.

  5. Though I think the Da Vinci plot is rather silly, I like most of the British and American books I have read which include religious people, but the Danish ones often annoy me. I go to church and religiously I belong to the ´right wing´. I don´t mind humour, irony or any fair account of religious minorities, but some Danish writers have the most horrible prejudices about Christians.

  6. Dorte - You've put your finger on one of the big challenges of crime fiction that deals with the topic of religion: how the writer treats the religious group. That's, for instance, one of the things that I've always liked about Tony Hillerman's treatment of Navajo religious beliefs; he presents them in a fair, interesting way, rather than "branding" them because they aren't conventional Western beliefs. When a writer isn't fair to a religious group, whether it's a majority or minority religion, it's no wonder that members of that group are put off. As you say, there's a big difference between gentle humor or or irony and expressing real prejudice against a group. That's why I'm a big fan of writers who are accurate.

  7. Kate Charles has written several books with a religous background that adds an extra layer of interest to the mystery.

  8. Martin - Thanks for bringing up Kate Charles. I must confess I'm not familiar enough with her work to write intelligently about it, but I know she's written some fine stuff. I appreciate your bringing her into the conversation.

  9. I think religious themes have a particular appeal to the crime writer because of the closed community and the ritualised aspects. One of P. D. James's early books was set in a religious community, I believe. More recently, for example, Asa Larsson explored different aspects of religion and crime in her first two books. In Sun Storm (a.k.a. The Savage Altar), she wrote about the death of a young, charismatic religious leader who had apparently been reborn after "dying" in hospital some years ago, then written a best-selling novel and founded a church on the proceeds. That novel was a chilling account of the various tentacles of both religious mania and family secrets. The second novel, "The Savage Altar" was about the death of a woman religious leader in a nearby village. It focused more on the financial aspects of the church (apparently, religion is big business in Sweden), and the lawyers who look after the church's investments. Again, lots of fascinating angles were explored.

    I think that in most long-running series of novels, the "religious/sect/spiritual/crazed messiah" type of theme comes into at least one novel! For example, Elizabeth George had one ("missing Joseph"? Joseph was in the title, anyway). So did Henning Mankell. Like everything else, I'm happy with it if it is done well.

  10. PS Bernadette - isn't Ellis Peters a woman? I am thinking "Edith Pargeter" for some reason!

  11. Maxine - You're right that George's Missing Joseph is all about religion. A priest is the murder victim, his housekeeper is into witchcraft, and there are a lot of references throughout the book to religious beliefs; as always, I'm glad you brought up such a great example of what I'm talking about.

    Is the P.D. James you're thinking of Death in Holy Orders? I have to admit I haven't read that one (although I like the Dalgleish series). You're right, though, that it's certainly relevant. It takes place at a theologoical seminary, and many of the characters are involved in the religious life. Maybe time for me to go back and find that one : ).

    Thanks also for the mention of Ana Larsson - I haven't tried her yet, but I hear such interesting and positive things about her. So many good little time....