I’ve read two books recently which had a strong religious setting. The first was Evil Intent by Kate Charles billed as a ‘modern ecclesiastical mystery’ where the central character Callie Anson has started a new job as curate at All Saint’s Church in Paddington. The murder of a virulent opponent of women priests, Father Jonah Adimola, thrusts Callie into the spotlight and her religious mentor, Frances Cherry becomes chief suspect. The second book, published in 1966, was The Religious Body by Catherine Aird and is set inside St Anselm’s convent. Sister Anne is found murdered at the bottom of the cellar steps and Inspector Sloan of Berebury CID is called in to investigate. Suspicion falls on the entire convent, where every member is living under an assumed name and many have an unrevealed past.
I have to say that I enjoyed both books. The religious settings meant that the pool of suspects were largely (although not exclusively) confined to the respective church communites. This gave both writers the opportunity to examine in-depth the lives of people for whom the religious life is literally a vocation. Churches also, of course, make a marvellous setting for a murder. The creepy atmosphere, solid stone walls and chilly temperature combine to provide an ideal setting for a clandestine murder.
But there is a downside. There are so many vicars in Evil Intent that I kept losing track of who each character was. There is also the tendency to cliché. Is it really so easy to categorise, for example, religious sisters as neatly as Catherine Aird does? This led me to wonder how many readers would be put off by a religious setting.
I think I should say that I love them. From Cadfael to William of Baskerville, Father Anselm to Alexander Seaton, a cleric or even better ex-cleric is usually a good bet for me. And it seems that I’m not alone. There is a website, Clerical Detectives, that identifies 250 detectives in crime fiction with a religious background from authors as diverse as Edward D Hoch, Faye Kellerman and James Patterson. So there is clearly a market out there for these kinds of books.
But the vast majority of people in the UK don’t go to church. Are they less likely to buy a book with a religious theme than a secular one? Or perhaps people don’t care. Cadfael, for example, which is very popular in UK could perhaps be classified more as historical crime fiction than religious. But I have noticed in my internet surfing that some crime fiction websites in the US have a ‘no religion’ policy when accepting books for review. I’m not sure of the reason for this – unless perhaps there are books proselytising under the guise of crime fiction. Perhaps someone could enlighten me.
I’ve also noticed, however, that some of the excellent books coming out of Scandinavia often features non-mainstream religious groups. I’m thinking of Asa Larsson’s The Savage Altar or Camilla Lackberg’s The Preacher which both look at the appropriation of religion for criminal intent. It seems to be a reflection of an aspect of Scandinavian life that writers think worth exploring.
What are your thoughts on this. Would a religious setting tempt or discourage you? Or does it make no difference?