What are clerical detectives?
I take clerical detectives to mean any detective with a significant church or religious background, so I include not only priests (male and female), ministers, monks, nuns, ex-nuns, a Shaker, two rabbis (and rabbis' widows and ministers' wives), a church administrator, and a clerk of a Quaker Meeting, but choirmaster/organists, religously inspired policemen, Buddhists, Muslims, and even a few witches. I've also found room for The Rev Sebastian, although he is more concerned with spying than detection, and The Rev Francis Oughterard, although he starts off by being a murderer rather than a detective.The Rev Otis Joy is an embezzler as well as a murderer, but I have included him too because he is such an entertaining character!
There is an alphabetical list of all detectives, a list divided into categoriesand a list of authors, as well as a search engine.
Why a site about clerical detectives?
It has been said that the most successful detective stories are 25% plot, 25% characterisation, and 50% what the writer knows best. Certainly, many authors start by using their own backgrounds and experiences as settings for their stories, and this is particularly true of many clerical mysteries, especially those written by clergy, so these can give us a chance to discover what really goes on behind the scenes, not only in their personal lives but in the organisations to which they belong. And the stories can raise important questions of belief as well as bringing up practical issues (such as the position of women, or of gays, in the church). To do all this may be asking rather a lot of a detective story, but it's surprising how many of the books meet these criteria, often adding humor too which comes as a welcome bonus.
I had begun by exploring the net for information about Charles Merrill Smith whose Reverend Randollph books I had accidentally stumbled on, only to discover there was little about him there. I thought he deserved better than this so decided to launch a small introductory site devoted to him and three or four otherwise neglected authors.
I then began to discover just how many clerical detectives there were! So far, I have found over 310 of them (see the contents list). If you know of any other clerical detectives, please get in touch with me (via my guest book).
My own preference is for authors who produce interesting stories and characters whose lives really were influenced by their faiths. I particularly like those engaged in a personal struggle with ecclesiastical bureaucracy, especially when this was done not only with concern but with humor. The background has to be convincing too, as it was this that had attracted me to the books in the first place.
Which are the very best clerical detectives?
My own favorites are:
Reverend Randollph (by Charles Merrill Smith). The author and character obviously have much in common, and his sense of humor brings his religion to life.
Rabbi Small (by Harry Kemelman). A very sympathetic portrayal of a small Jewish community with the emphasis on the religious significance of Judaism.
Sister Fidelma (by Peter Tremayne). A fascinating portrayal of 7th century Ireland when the Celtic church allowed monks and nuns to marry, there were mixed sex monasteries, and women could rise to high levels in the legal profession.
Father Koesler (by William X Kienzle). The author and character again have much in common. Interesting portrayal of the Roman Catholic church after Vatican II and the problems it still faces.
Theodora Braithwaite (by D M Greenwood). A disgruntled view of oddities in the Anglican Church, written by someone who had obviously experienced them at first hand. Entertaining and witty.
Father Crumlish (by Alice Scanlan Reach). An engaging, over-worked, old Irish American Roman Catholic priest who only appeared in thirteen (largely forgotten) short stories, but who really came to life.
Of the few non-clerical detectives included on the site because I so enjoyed them, my favorites are:
Michael Gilbert's characters. Michael Gilbert wrote a large number of highly diverse stories, notable for their entertaining, ingenious and convincing plots.
In all my comments on the books, I have tried never to give away the solution or do anything to lessen a reader's enjoyment of the story.
A beginners' guide to detective nuns
(of whom there are too many, particularly medieval ones)
The most intriguing and most well-connected nun? Sister Fidelma
The most lively nun? Sister Joan
The most sexually explicit nun? Sister Agnes
The "least cut out to be a nun"? Sister Pelagia
The most unbelieving nun? Soeur Auguste
The most formidable nun? Sister Mary Teresa
The nun with the simplest faith (and the most obedient dog)? Sister Agatha
The most amusing nun? Sister John
The nun who hides mystery stories in her prayer book? Sister Mary Helen
The nun described as a "self-opinionated little devil"? Soeur Angèle
The shrewdest but least seen nun? Sister Ursula
The nun who got married at 14? Abbess Helewise
The nun with a private investigator's licence? Sister Cecile
The nun who is Sister on the cover but Dame in the book? Dame Frevisse
The nun who can't stop lusting after a young monk? Prioress Eleanor
The young ex-novice whose father was Jewish? Catherine LeVendeur
The ex nun who runs her own detective agency? Bridget O"Toole
The very first detective nun, in a story "free of gore and sex"? Sister Simon
The medieval nun who most resembles a modern woman? Hildegard
The nun who is a "Rectress" and has to deal with "freshettes?" Mother Paul
The nun whose dotty father pretended to be a priest? Sister Ria
The nun who uses a huge candlestick as a weapon? Dame Averilla
The nun who is given a red cell phone by the grateful police? Sister Angela
The nun who was sure her superior was devil possessed? Sister Ana
The 17th century abbess who fought for women's rights? Mother Hilda
The nun who was an expert basketball coach? Sister Maureen
The nun who is seconded to be deputy sheriff? Sister Margaret
The nun who helps a (real if magical) dragon solve cases? Sister Grace
The nun known as "mary talk-talk long God"? Sister Conchita
The most violent nun, altogether "too assertive, too direct"? Sister Rose
The noble lady who had once been an abbess? Lady Katheryn Bulkeley
The novice who found herself in the Tower of London? Sr Joanna Stafford
The lesbian novice who fell in love with a fellow novice? Brigid Donovan
The nun who doesn't worry about killing lesser mortals? Sister Madeleine
The most holy nun ???
There is an interesting article (March 2007) about clerical detectives on the Albuquerque Tribune site. Recommended sites about individual authors are listed on the relevant pages.
Finding the books
The most obvious (and cheapest) place to start is usually amazon, but for a comprehensive search go to bookfinder.
I have spare copies of some of the books reviewed on this site available for sale - but only to UK addresses, I'm afraid. Please use my Guestbook to let me know what you are looking for.
I hope you enjoy exploring the site. You can read the pages in any order (there is a search engine at the foot of the CONTENTS PAGE).
Please use my GUEST BOOK to tell me what you think of it. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!
My thanks to Steve Lewis of mystery*file for suggesting that I should add this page.