Do crime and religion mix?

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?

I read Evil Intent after an excellent review of the book at Reactions to Reading where there also a dicussion on religious cults here.

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15 thoughts on “Do crime and religion mix?

  1. Sarah – What a fascinating post! I agree with you that series such as the Cadfael novels are compelling as mysteries apart from their religious content. As to your question, I’ve actually read some novels where there was what I considered an intent to proselytise, and I admit that bothers me. But I can think of many, many fine series (e.g. G.K Chesterton’s Father Brown series and Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma Series, among many others) in which there is a theme of religion or in which certain characters are clerics, that are just simply good stories. And authors such as Deborah Crombie and P.D. James have included clerics in their stories. So has Dorothy Sayers. Religion may not be a daily part of everyone’s life, but it is, I think, embedded in many cultures, so why shouldn’t it pop up in crime fiction. Would I choose a book or reject it based on religion? No, that wouldn’t affect my decision unless it was clear that the book was a tract disguised as a mystery.

    • Thanks Margot. I agree with you about some of the excellent writers who include a cleric. And I had wondered about the crossover between crime fiction and christian evangelism. It’s not something I’ve come across but I will certainly look out for it.

  2. Hi Sarah, you’ve made me think as this is a question that had never occurred to me before. However, when you consider that most crime novels deal with death and the reprecussions of that death on the living, it’s no wonder that religion in whatever form lends itself to the genre. Indeed, I can think of several books where the cleric is used as a disguise (Conan-Doyle) or as inadvertent harbingers (Christie) or even just comic relief (Christie again). The danger lies in using religion as an easy stopgap for the reasons (the killer was New Age/Wiccan/nonconformist whatever) for the crime in the first place, which can be both sloppy and prejudicial. What a fascinating question! Thanks for making me look at the genre with new eyes.

    • Thanks Anwen and what a really good point about the relationship between the subject of death and the place of religion. And you’re right about religion in crime fiction extending beyond the detective. Plenty of secondary characters too.

  3. Very interesting post, and I remember reading that Catherine Aird book some years ago! I don’t go out of my way to read books about religion as it isn’t a topic that interests me that much, but as you point out it seems unavoidable! (I think at least one of PD James’s books was about a religious order, as well as the other examples provided here).

    I think that one aspect of this is the “there are only so many plots” question. Hence, when someone is writing a series there is often one about religion, maybe in the form of a sect (eg Hakan Nesser’s The Inspector and Silence). Then there is Jonesuu’s Priest of Evil which I have not read owing to the title/theme.

    In Asa Larsson’s case, in her first two books she was wanting to bring to readers’ attention what big business religion is in Sweden, apparently not many people are aware of the sums involved (I wasn’t until I read the author’s article about this topic). And, of course, once you get large sums of money at stake, crime can follow pretty fast!

    Oh yes – just thought of Name of the Rose 😉

    • Thanks Maxine epecially for the Nesser reminder. When I was trying to remember all the titles of Scandinavian fiction involving a religious group they all began to blur into one. Then after I had published my post I came across your comments on Benradette’s R is for Religious Cults where you provide a very good list (as usual!) As you say, where money and sex are combined in the name of religion it can make a good setting for a crime.

  4. I can understand that these settings aren’t for everyone. I think my own interest stems from my own history and my family’s…my maternal grandparents left Ireland due to religious conflict (one was Catholic the other not) and their leaving had ramifications that stretched across their many siblings and down to my own mother…I was brought up in a fairly strict Catholic household and did all my schooling at Catholic schools and then rebelled against all of that in my late teens which again caused family troubles.. It took me a while but I did eventually work out that the issue of religion and faith is not as black & white as I believed when I was 17 or 18 and since I came to that obvious to everyone else realisation I have just wanted to understand religion in more general terms and have tried to read widely – non-fiction as well as a range of fiction – and lots of my travel has ended up including visits to important religious sites of several different faiths and I like going to ceremonies of different faiths too and talking to participants.

    Looking for crime fiction which explores religious themes and ideas is an extension of that interest though I must admit I am picky…I don’t like books which proselytise for OR against religion and I like the subject to be handled intelligently. As well as my religious cults post I also did a “C is for Clergy” post for the crime fiction alphabet so you see I am perhaps a little bit obsessed with religious themed books 🙂 http://reactionstoreading.com/2011/01/24/crime-fiction-alphabet-c-is-for-clergy/

    As for the ‘no religion’ policy of some reviewing sites in the US I suspect they are trying to avoid ‘the industry’ – there are entire publishing houses which only publish religious books in a range of genres (crime, romance, sci-fi etc) and the stuff is churned out by the devoted (fanatical?) writing teams – I saw a documentary about this last time I was in the US (I have a brother who lives there) and it was quite scary – the books are generally pretty awful and do a lot of preaching and they are not the kind of thing any general reader (even one who has their own faith but isn’t a fundamentalist) would want to read.

  5. Bernadette – I’m glad I’ve found another crime fiction fan who likes religious books. Like you I don’t like to read anything anti religious but wouldn’t want to read anything evangelical too. I have to say I haven’t yet read anything that would come under either heading. I think in England religion is often not a central aspect of the book but rather the setting to a wider crime. (In ‘Evil Intent’ for example the motive was ultimately sex).

    I had no idea that there was an entire publishing industry out there, but thinking about it, it’s not a complete surprise. I remember when I travelled through Utah and Arizona there were a vast number of churches on the side of the roads and the sheer scale of them took my breath away.

    Thanks also for sharing your family history. There has been a lot in the press about the movement of Catholics to Australia, most of it I have to say quite distressing. It’s a fascinating area and given the subsequent scandals that are continuing to be brought to light (only last month involving abuse at Ealing Abbey school) is likely to be written about for the considerable future.

    Not strictly religious, have you read Reginald Hill’s ‘The Stranger House?’ There is a sub-plot invoving a girl sent ot Australia?

  6. Sarah It is excellent to have found someone else who shares the curiosity without the craziness of fundamentalism of any persuasion – I am always wary of telling people of my interest because most people make assumptions that you have strong beliefs one way or another and I really don’t – I am simply interested in the ways religion plays a part in the lives of individuals and communities. Some of it does scare me (the scariest movie I have ever seen is a documentary called Jesus Camp about the fundamentalist Christians in the US – scarier than any horror movie I’ve ever seen) but it’s not all bad.

    I have not read That book of Hill’s but it;s going on my wishlist immediately – thanks. I have been following all the stories about that subject (the movie Oranges and Sunshine covered it well I thought) and when I was an archivist for the State archives here I had quite a bit to do with some research for a particular group of English people who’d been sent out here as children. It is sometimes gobsmacking to think that anyone could think it a good idea even for a moment let alone go through with it – but much of history is full of such mistakes I suppose.

    I shall look forward to hearing about any other religious themed books you come across 🙂

  7. Just checked audible and the Hill book is available as an audio book, narrated by one of my favourites. Downloading it as I write – will be reading it next after my current audio book is finished 🙂

    • I think I might join you in downloading the audio book. I’ve just remembered how much I enjoyed the book. I would be interested how authentic you the main character is. I remember liking her very much but I love Reginald Hill anyway.
      I will let you know if I come across anything else.

  8. Then I must say I’m not attracted to books with religious characters or themes, but I can deal with a bit of it, although I’d like to read a Sister Fidelma, early Irish mysteries (written today), to read about half of my heritage. And I’d like to read any series with laid-back rabbis as the detectives. Those I can deal with. I will check in with Bernadette’s Clergy-related mysteries. I liked those suggestions. But if there are religious overtones or proselytizing, I’ll head for the hills.
    Now I’d love to read a Fred Vargas about a religious grouping, where one person is murdered and Inspector Adamsberg has to investigate, and within that, he must face and deal with religious figures. He can.

    • I agree about proselytising in crime fiction. I think it is much ore endemic in the US but you do get it to a certain extent in the UK. Vargas’s The Three Evangelists had an interesting religious take but yes, I agree, one for Adamsberg.

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