The Rev Dr Kathryn Koerney is based at St Margaret's Episcopal Church in Harton, New Jersey. where "everybody, it seemed, had either money or brains". (St Margaret's is modeled after Trinity Church in Princeton, which is the real-life Harton.) She takes a multi-denominational class at the local presbyterian seminary, where she regards herself as the token Anglican. This "frequently turned into a ecumenical free-for-all, with the different denominations cheerfully attacking one another's absurdities .... Kathryn deliberately conducted the seminar in a way that encouraged this sort of debate, and every time they all dissolved into howls of laughter, she was once again convinced that there was hope for the Church Universal".
She thought that "committee meetings were among the prime works of the Devil. She based this assertion on the ancient and orthodox belief that the Devil's chief mission is not (as is popularly believed) to make people wicked, but to make people miserable". During them she would reflect that "The Church is never going to be anything more than a club for dinosaurs and any priest with a grain of self-respect would abandon her priesthood and take up a more honorable profession, like prostitution or maybe gunrunning".
She is an attractive woman, aged 35 in the second book: "In high spirits, she was exceptionally beautiful, lit from within. In a more somber mood, she was merely very, very good-looking". She was bright and intelligent too, and had recently inherited "a fabulous amount of money from her father". So she can afford to employ a live-in help, Mrs Warburton, whom she calls Warby and characteristically treats as an equal. She "had an exaggerated sense of her obligations. She lashed herself with guilt whenever she though she'd failed to meet expectations - her own or anybody else's." But confronted with a problem (as she often is), she is well able to sit down quietly and work things out.
She has a nice sense of humor too. When reminded by her admirer Tom Holder, the police chief, that there's a lot of anti-Semitism in the New Testament, and asked why she never mentioned that in her adult Sunday School classes (which he used to attend), she laughs: "Oh, right. 'Ladies and gentlemen of St Margaret's, the first thing you need to know about the Bible is that there's a lot of crap in it .... It's not the sort of thing you say to scaredy-cat Christians, of whom there were about half a dozen in that class'."Like the author, she had previously been married, when, she says, "I was too busy being miserable, I think, to fall in love with anybody else" but then she got divorced. And that's all we're told about her marriage.
Cristina Sumners (1951 - 2013) had a BA in English from Vassar, an MDiv from the General Theological seminary of the Episcopal Church and an MPhil in medieval English studies from Oxford University. She taught English and worked in two churches in Texas, and been the Education Officer at a large urban church in England. Married to a scientist, she lived in Taos, New Mexico.
While studying at Princeton, she took advice on her unhappy marriage (from which she then broke free) from the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy at the Aquinas Institute. On the way back home, she used to take a shortcut through the Holy Trinity driveway, and one night thought, "This would be the perfect place to find a body!
"So, she says, "I went home and started to write a novel about a young woman who was miserably married and was coming home from a marriage counselling session and found a body in her church doorway. The story of how this became not my first novel but my third to be published is long and complicated, and I won't bore you with it. But I do want to tell you how it got to be twenty-five years between the beginning of that novel and my first novel getting published. I didn't have faith in myself. I worked on it in bits and pieces of spare time, but I said to myself that I couldn't justify spending real time on it because it was just a fantasy. People like me don't turn into published novelists." But she did - and her advice is, "If you have an idea for a novel, sit down and write it! Do not cheat yourself out of a quarter of a century of a writing career, as I did".
Crooked Heart (2002)
Crooked Heart starts with a murder, then goes on tell how an affluent housewife goes missing and a young girl (who has been keeping too close an eye on her neighbors) disappears. The Rev Kathryn Koerney, who has been in town since the previous fall, helps her admirer, unhappily married police chief Tom Holder, sort out the complicated inter-relationships of two families, and, after a few hiccups, identify the murderer - indeed she takes the initiative and ends up doing more than he does.
Tom "had married a beautiful set of legs that were attached, as he discovered later, to the most depressing woman in the state". He is attracted to Kathryn partly because of the way she treats him "as an equal among intellectuals", and can laugh with him. He may be forty pounds overweight, going bald, and married, but she had always liked him since he'd been a member of her adult Sunday school class, and indeed had a sexy dream about him. "But the point was," she told herself, that she "wasn't attracted to Tom. So she hadn't done anything to deserve the dream."
The author says that this was the 7th draft of her book, and it is still, it must be admitted, rather slow-moving in places. The use of flashbacks, although kept brief, tends to slow down the action too.
The best bits are when Kathryn herself is present (as when she discusses the redecorating of her new home with two very upmarket decorators who turn out to be at the heart of the story). But in the end it all builds up to a really gripping and exciting climax.
Kathryn had fancied herself as "a sort of Peter Wimsey with a few credits in pastoral counselling", but then had to admit that "She had been congratulating herself on being the only only one who had got it right, and she had been disastrously wrong". She had been, she finally admits to Tom, "eaten up with pride". Then they remember it is Sunday and they have not been to church. Kathryn reminds him, "I'm a traveling Eucharist, you know. I can make my own". So they set off to the church walking "side by side but were careful not to touch each other". They are two strong and interesting characters - more interesting really than the plot in which they are involved.
Thieves Break In (2004)
Thieves Break In tells how The Rev Kathryn Koerney, accompanied by a friend of her choice (Tom, the police chief), agrees to guide a group of her New Jersey parishioners around historical Oxford, the English university city. She also hopes to visit her cousin Rob Hillman, who is working for Sir Gregory at Datchworth Castle. But then she gets word that Rob has fallen from the battlements to his death, so sets off to the castle with Tom, leaving an old Oxford friend to show the party around - and that's the last we hear of them. A pity really, because Oxford was a setting that the author really knew about.
The story then gets highly confusing as we jump around from the present to "Almost Seven Months Before Rob Hillman's Death' to "Sixty-four Years before Rob Hillman's Death" to "Close to Midnight" to "Five Months Before Rob Hillman's Death" to "Fifty-three Years Before Rob Gillman's Death", and so it goes on. There are a lot of characters, anyway, and you could hardly find a better way of thoroughly muddling the reader.
The author's picture of aristocratic life at Datchworth Castle is amusing but hardly very realistic. There is even an imperturbable butler called Crumper (who, we are told, had been educated at Winchester at the expense of his employer but can chat to Tom like an old friend), with his father Old Crumper and his daughter young "Crumpet". There is a secret room, a possibly priceless manuscript, a mad old aunt locked away in the attic, and an exploration of the "little-known fact she (Kathryn) had been taught in her seminary's pastoral counselling course: one of the most common reactions to bereavement is increased sexual drive". She falls for a handsome young aristocrat but he was looking for a woman who was "impervious to both of the beasts". The first of these was his large house and title, and the second was that he was confined to a wheelchair. It is the house and title that puts Kathryn off, but not before she has made Tom thoroughly jealous.
Individual incidents are well told, and there are amusing moments, as when "plain New Jersey cop" Tom , has to sit down to a formal dinner and does not know how to eat asparagus. But no sooner do you begin to get involved, than you are whisked off to another place and time. The author can even joke about all the confusion, as when one of the characters tells Kathryn: "Uncle Gregory is my great-grandmother's brother. Derek is my grandmother's brother. And my mother had two half-brothers, twins, which means that they are both half-uncles, and two halves make one. Total of three uncles living. And the one that died before I was born wasn't really my uncle anyway, I just call him that. He was actually my first cousin twice removed ... I trust that's perfectly clear?" Tom and Kathryn both laugh, but the joke really backfires on the author.
As Kathryn herself says in another context, it was all "a rip-roaring melodrama from start to finish ... It was positively Gothic. It was ridiculous. What century did they think they were living in?" Not this one, certainly. And Kathryn herself seems to have very little in common with the interesting priest we met in the first book. Indeed you would hardly know she was a priest at all.
Familiar Friend (2006)
Familiar Friend gets off to a strong start when Mason Blaine, the widely disliked chairman of the university's Spanish Department, is found with his skull bashed in and a knife sticking out of his back. Together with police chief Tom Holder, the Rev Kathryn finds herself once again hunting down a killer. She is still working at St Margaret's as "a voluntary part-time member of the staff", but also lectures at the seminary.
Then another member of the university staff is poisoned - and Tom discovers that his own wife has been missing for nearly four days! They had had separate rooms, and he had spent so much time at the station that he had never noticed it. He is suspended by a bossy self-important District Attorney, Nick Silverman, who sees it as a golden opportunity to arrest the murderer(s) himself. Unfortunately he arrests the wrong people.
Kathryn blames the rector for putting Silverman in touch with disgruntled members of the vestry who had told him that they thought Tom might have killed his wife. "You," she does not hesitate to tell him, "are a son of a bitch!" Father Mark took a few seconds to recover. That Tom had been arrested, she tells him, is "your bloody fault". The rector apologizes, and asks, "Now that I've repented and confessed, you might stop berating me and sit down. Maybe together we could figure out a way to minimize the damage".
And he suggests that she should invite over Kit, the English marquis who had fallen in love with her the previous summer, so that people could see that she was in love with him, rather than with Tom, so any motive for Tom disposing of his wife would disappear. Kit had been regularly asking Kathryn to marry him, but so far without success. "I am reluctant to be a marchioness," she explains. "I'm not happy with the idea of living in the middle of nowhere in Oxfordshire in a life of rarified privilege. I think it would ruin me. I already have too much money. I'm afraid for my soul." So Kit, ever confined to a wheelchair, flies all the way over the Atlantic to help her. "He was staggeringly attractive. She couldn't wait to make love to him". But marriage? No.
In the end Kathryn tells Kit, "Kit, dear, I'm so sorry to drag you over here and then inhospitably throw you back again, but I'm hideously behind on my work because of all this homicide business, and you are such a distraction you know ....". So "Kit sighed and packed his bags". It beggars belief, doesn't it? Especially as we are told that Tom "went on loving her, and she went on loving Kit". Then Tom surprisingly gets a scholarship (funded by Kathryn) to study at Oxford. Is Kathryn going to return to England too? Will the three of them get involved in yet another murder and unresolved love affair? Let's hope not.
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