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?