Sister Gertrude & the Benedictine Bloodhounds

(creator: Betty Hyland)

Betty Hyland
The Benedictine Bloodhounds cover
The Benedictine Bloodhounds are nuns at the Monastery of St Benedict of Norcia, which, we are told, is just outside the small town of Loughlin "on the far eastern tip of Grande Island" and houses some 30 Sisters, all devoted to work and prayer, most of them teaching in their school, nursing or working in the monastery. Only the oldest of them still wear habits and they all enjoy watching the latest TV crime serials. Led by Sister Gertrude, they prove so good at helping to solve murder mysteries (of which there seem to be about one a year at this particular monastery) that the local police suggest they could open their own detective agency.

Elizabeth (usually writing as Betty) Hyland (1927-2012) was born in Queens and graduated from the Katharine Gibbs School in New York. She did secretarial work before settling in northern Virginia. She became a prolific writer and activist on mental illness and is best known known for her 1987 novel The Girl With the Crazy Brother about a teenager struggling to cope with her schizophrenic brother. This arose out of her own experience with a schizophrenic son who predeceased her. When she was in her eighties, she also self-published The Benedictine Bloodhounds, reviewed below. She was married and last lived in Reston, Virginia, where she died of cancer, leaving two sons and six grandchildren.

The Benedictine Bloodhounds (2008)
The Benedictine Bloodhounds is made up of four novellas, each set in or around the Monastery of St Benedict of Norcia.

The Case of the Benedictine Beatitude describes how four Sisters manage to unmask the murderer of handyman Clyde, a big, strong man who had been a bit simple but
friendly and amiable. They are Sister Gertrude, the prioress, Sister Brigid, who ministers to inmates of the local prison (where she accidentally helped two convicts to escape), Sister Jerome, the school librarian, and old Sister Jane de Chantal who is their historian. They make a lively quartet and a force to be reckoned with, and manage to identify the "tall nun in full habit" who has been seen hurrying around, and may be linked to the murder. It turns out to be Thomas T, one of the escaped convicts. They hand him over to the local policeman who tells him, "Let's go, Sister Tom." But that's not the end of the story.

It is all written in a chatty, "cozy" style, but is fun to read, just as the author intended. Even when Brigid visits a man just about to be executed, she manages to ask him cheerfully, "Any psalm or hymn or catchy tune you want to hear, Ray?" and, when worried about the speed at which local developer Mr Brittin is giving her a lift, "her prayer was that she would not precede Ray in death as Mr Brittin passed a tractor trailer honking his horn and, she was pretty certain, cursing under his breath. She knew a word or two from her prison work. Whew! They made it." And there are no end of jokes about gourds, which the Sisters grow. "Have a gourd day," Clyde would joke. And we learn in a later story that, even on his little memorial stone, schoolchildren had affectionately painted, "Gourd bye".

Somewhat surprisingly, the explanation of the history of the monastery and the cast list of Sisters appears at the end of this first novella, instead of before it which would have made more sense.

The Case of the Benedictine Bottles is the shortest of the four stories and describes how four women are poisoned, one of them dying. Could Sister Cleopha's raspberry punch (lovingly made with her own Haitian recipe) have been responsible? Sister Cleopha (in her usual "brightly flowered dress with bangles") is determined to prove not, and by asking the key question provides the answer to the murderer's identity. You can see why police sergeant Artie tells her, "You're the feistiest nun I know."

Amongst new characters introduced are Dutton, the handyman, who does not seem too handy: "I think I'm a Baptist," he tells Sister Gertrude when first appointed, and later on, is described as "wondering if he knew how to do electrical work". And he demonstrates conclusively that he can't do plumbing. The story is full of such gentle humor.

The Case of the Benedictine Burial starts with the body of the late Sister Jane de Chantal awaiting burial. She had been nearly 83. The monastery's new resident priest, Father Augustus Berkeley, says the Requiem Mass. His brother Nat, who describes himself as "just a vagabond" sets off on a search for gold in Belize. "Why don't you find yourself a wife?" he had asked his brother.
"I know a few married priests myself," Gus had told him, "and, to tell the truth, never blamed them." Then he joked, "My recurring nightmare is that on my eightieth birthday, the Pope will give priests permission to marry."

That was one of the few humorous comments in a story in which two bodies are discovered but in whch the crimes are solved not
by the nuns but by the police. It is the longest of the four novellas and seems so, especially when pages are devoted to the police speculating not only who might be responsible but even describing Sergeant Artie's retired greyhounds that have nothing at all to do with the plot. We are told that he is Detective Jim Evers' new partner - but they had been described as working together in the previous story! It seems that this must have been intended as the second, not the third, episode.

Jim, after listening to their suggestions, tells the nuns, "You sisters should open a detective agency."
"What about Benedictine Bloodhounds?" said Sister Angela.
"How about Sisters in Crime?" suggested Sister Cleopha beaming.
"I love it. We'll have to see if the name has been taken," said Angela.
"Sounds familiar somehow," said Artie thoughtfully. (It is, of course, a well-known existing organization promoting women crime writers, to which the author herself belonged.)

There is a chilling sequence when a long dead body has to be exhumed from the nuns' graveyard but it is all rather slow moving and lacks the entertainment value of the other stories.

The Case of the Benedictine Booty sees yet another handyman and resident priest in place. Both turn out to be odd characters: Raymond, the handyman, is regularly heard by the nuns praying out loudly and is seen carrying mysterious small packages into the woods at night. Father Liam O Suilleabhain (surely it should be O'), an exuberant Irish Franciscan, delights the Sisters by calling them all "Sister darlin'" but does not seem to know how to pronounce Omagh, and he does not carry holy oils. So, when a dead body is found, both become possible suspects.

The story involves a murdered corpse, invaluable long-long lost altar pieces and wife abuse, so plenty happens, and, when a policeman becomes the subject of a violent attack, it is no wonder that Detective Jim Evers reports back, "There's something fishy here" - but luckily shy Sister Lucia is there to suggest how a trap could be set. It is then that Jim tells them, "You'd make good detectives. You ought to form a group, get a name; something like Sister in Crime."
"Sounds familiar somehow," says Gertude. And so it should be, for it was exactly the same suggestion that had been made in the previous book. That is one of the hazards of self-publishing: there is no-one to tell you when you're repeating yourself - or, as here, that the ending is rather confusing.

However, it is very much a return to form for the author. The nuns play a major part in the detective work ("The sleuth in me is never very far below the surface," laughs Sister Gertrude), and it is another enjoyable read.

There is an obituary of the author in The Washington Post

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