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.

SinC25: Åsa Larsson – Until Thy Wrath be Past

One of the things I most love about blogging is linking to other crime fiction sites. There are a wealth of good blogs out there and when I get the chance I want to compile a list of my favourites. Something I came across recently is the Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers Challenge which aims to promote the contribution of women to crime fiction. Looking at my recent book purchases I notice that about 70% were by men and to redress the balance here is my stab at the ‘easy’ challenge – a review of Åsa Larsson’s new book Until thy Wrath be Past.

A girl’s body is found in the River Torne in the north of Sweden during the first spring thaw. Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson, working in nearby Kiruna is drawn into the case after the dead girl visits her in the night. The investigation soon focuses on an isolated frozen lake where a plane carrying supplies for the Wehrmacht disappeared in 1943. It is a tale of memories which refuse to be buried and of violence which spills from inside a family into the wider community.

Larsson’s Savage Altar was a strong debut for the writer and I found her follow-up books to be of consistently good quality. This new book is an excellent although sometimes discomforting read. The main body of the murder investigation is interspersed with passages which take the point of view of the dead girl. This can be a difficult area for writers. They needs to be both convincing and yet open to the possibilities that this might not be everyone’s idea of being dead. I think Larsson deals with the issue very well and the final excerpt from the dead girl is very moving.

There is a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction out there at the moment and most of it of a high quality. What Larsson adds to the genre is a strong sense of place, setting her books in a rural Swedish community where the past strongly influences the present.  Her books also have convincing female characters and it is therefore a worth inclusion in the Sisters of Crime challenge.

As part of the challenge I need to recommend five more women crime writers. My only problem is keeping the list to five so I’ve decided to go for a geographical spread:

1. Mari Jungstedt (books set on the Swedish island of Gotland)

2. Fred Vargas (pseudonym of French historian and archaeologist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau. Features the detective Adamsberg).

3. Jennifer Egan (US author, books often have an element of crime/thriller)

4. Ann Cleeves (UK writer author of Vera Stanhope series recently televised with Brenda Blethyn)

5. Yrsa Sigurdardottir  (author of well-written thrillers set in Iceland)