Reading Religious Murder Mysteries For Relaxation, Fun and Sometimes A Bit of Spiritual Growth

Liz Yeats

[Reprinted by permission from The Best of Friends, Vol. 1, a collection published by the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts, in 2000. A lot of interesting mysteries have been published since then, but this is a good starter.]

I know no better relaxation than curling up in my favorite chair with a nice cup of tea and good murder mystery. Make it a well written religious, murder mystery that delves into spiritual, theological, and social concerns, and you have my perfect afternoon; my Sabbath from the cares and drudgery of my personal and professional life; a time and space suspended from reality. Yes, a virtual time and space in which I can exercise my mind trying to determine who done it and why!
Murder mystery

Early in my adult life, just before I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends, I began reading murder mysteries. It became a regular practice during my sojourn in rural Vermont where I worked for the American Friends Service Committee. I had always loved theater, even settling for that which was not particularly high grade on television or available Off-Off Broadway. But Rutland, Vermont had very little theater and living between two mountains there was no television reception. Besides, I had to catch my leisure time between my many meetings and phone calls. Wanting a more interruptible but engaging form of entertainment, I turned to reading mysteries.

Mysteries fit my needs. They are cheap, even free if one has access to a good public library, readily available, most often short, thus light in weight and intensity. They travel well, especially the paperbacks and you can hold them up in bed even after a long day.

More important, the good ones reflect some interesting aspects of past or contemporary culture, religion and/or politics. They deal with human good and evil. All mystery authors are posing a puzzle and sketching a solution to the puzzle through the thoughts and actions of the characters. To me, the better authors are those who use their mysteries to ask questions with which they struggle themselves, and through their characters explore how the human mind works, especially how people treat one another, care for one another, and solve problems. A well-crafted mystery is a puzzle of the human spirit. Who did it, how did they do it, and, most important of all, why?

The most wonderful thing about mysteries is they aren’t real. In fact, I shy away from the ones that are too realistic. This is part of what makes reading mysteries a spiritual activity for me. They are a Sabbath for my soul. I spend too much time weighed down by the incredible level of real violence in this world, wondering how humans can be so inhumane to one another. I struggle to develop tools to educate toward ending such evil. Often, I grow intense and discouraged, but I still find the issues involved with human good and evil fascinating.

How wonderful to be able to ponder those same issues in the make-believe of the murder mystery. I can sit back fully in control and wonder why one character has killed another. If the book upsets me, I can put it down and leave its world. I don’t have to live with the characters or wonder what I could do to prevent the next murder. I can examine the way the author portrays the human interactions, see just how diverse human thought and behavior can be, and then move on.

At times, a mystery has actually “spoken to my condition” in the same way that a message in meeting for worship sometimes presents a new insight or a path to ponder. This was true with some of the first mysteries I read, those of Dorothy Sayers.

Sayers lived in the first years of the twentieth century when most women were not permitted careers, even in academia. Yet Sayers created the character of Harriet Vane, assistant and eventually wife to detective Peter Whimsey, as a strong, intellectual, caring woman who seeks an academic career. Growing up in the fifties and sixties in the United States, I often felt marginalized as a strong and competent young woman. Sayers’ characterization of Vane spoke to me far better than the stereotypical female heroines in the required canon of my high school and college days.

Amanda Cross was another author I discovered. A feminist, Cross created Kate Fansler, a 50ish, intellectual, New York City English professor, part-time detective and loving wife to a law professor. When Kate’s friend Sylvia begs her to take a temporary teaching position in Boston so that she can investigate a murder in Death in a Tenured Position, Fansler affirms her relationship with her husband, Reed, saying, “Reed always knew I had to have times without him. I always knew that he never bored me when I was with him. Though I miss him, I don’t pine for him when we’re apart, nor pine for solitude when we’re together. Greater tribute hath no woman.”

Now, there’s an image of a strong, faithful, but independent woman, the kind of woman that at thirty, I could hope to become.

Another set of mysteries that intrigued me early on were those of husband and wife, Maj Swojall and Pere Waloo. These Swedish authors wove violent, suspense-filled tales in the Stockholm of the 1960s. But in between the blood and gore they put wonderful scenes of Swedish family life. I remember one scene in particular, though I have not been able to locate it, where the detective and his wife engage in a pleasant interlude of early morning sex, unashamed when their young children enter the room.

Something I probably never considered reenacting, but a slice of real life presented with such warmth and whimsy that I began to think about the family life I did want to create. The plots of these mysteries have fallen away but the alternative family behavior Swojall and Waloo depicted has remained with me for over 20 years.

Closer to my experience was the suburban Jewish community in Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series. These books, named for days of the week, pair the young, scholarly Rabbi Small with the older, seasoned, Roman Catholic police chief Hugh Lanigan. Rabbi Small often finds himself defending his community, a group that does not always embrace Small’s role as judge and scholar, not pastor, of his congregation.

Kemelman uses the books to explore and educate about modern Judaism and its place in suburban America. A professor and philosopher of education by vocation, he sometimes seems less involved with the plots of the murders than with the aspects of society out of which they grow and the theological concerns which they raise. In fact one might see the Rabbi mysteries as parables on modern life, each one carefully constructed to raise a social/psychological issue, explore its theological implications and teach a careful lesson about the morally and ethically correct life.

Coming as I do from a Jewish family, Kemelman’s learned but accessible exploration of Jewish law and its application to twen-tieth century life drew me into pondering my own religious convictions. In the end, these well-written and enjoyable stories affirmed my choice to leave American Judaism. Kemelman’s Rabbi Small articulates a Jewish religion that is a “code of ethical behavior,” not a faith in a God who is active in this world. This described well the Judaism of my parents and grandparents.

Yet, I have always felt that the only fully observant Jew I knew as a child, my Great Grandpa Welikson, lived with a faith in a God who was mysterious but active in this world. I was never able to explore this fully with him as he died when I was about seven and this faith filled kind of Judaism seemed unavailable to me as I matured religiously in my twenties. By the time I read these mysteries, I found myself experiencing a faith in a God within, an experience that was fully honored among Friends where I found my spiritual home.

After discovering the Rabbi series, I looked for more religious mysteries. Writing in his extensive study of this genre, Mysterium and Mystery, The Clerical Crime Novel, William David Spenser says “My theory is that the modern mystery novel is a secularized form structured on the ancient mysterium or revelation of God’s judgment and grace…The mystery story itself, in its quest for the criminal and interdiction of evil and restoration of the good, images the quest through a fallen world for the great good God.”

As a Quaker, I might say it a bit differently, talking about the ocean of light overcoming the ocean of darkness, as George Fox did. In the religious murder mystery this theme is particularly clear. In a sense, good wins out every time the detective solves the case, making the whole genre a very positive one. Perhaps that’s why I like and read religious mysteries so much. So I have read a great many, too many to review them all here, but I want to discuss some of the best and particularly those written by and about Quakers.

The best written religious mysteries I’ve consumed to date are by Ellis Peters (a pen name for the British author Edith Pargeter). In these 20 short books Cadfael, a 12th century, socially concerned herbalist, Benedictine monk becomes a practiced detective using common sense and a bit of prayer to root out evil in and around the English town of Shrewsbury. The medieval setting is beautifully researched and described. Best of all, the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul actually existed in Cadfael’s time and you can still visit some of the buildings today.

The first of these books, A Morbid Taste for Bones, illustrates well Cadfael’s propensity to stray from the strict Catholic rule of his order and follow common sense to help good triumph over evil. The tale centers around the discovery of the bones of Saint Winifred in Wales, not far from Shrewsbury, and the attempt by Cadfael’s superiors to transfer these relics to their abbey church.

Cadfael is dispatched with the procurement party because of his facility with the language, not because he has much interest in relics. In Cadfael’s mind there is much question about transporting the bones of a Welsh saint to England and even some skepticism about the practice of honoring relics at all.

In fact, Peters portrays many of the monks of Cadfael’s community rather negatively as slaves to their practices and hunger for power. Cadfael, on the other hand, readily admits his own and others frailty but seeks a just, and in this case wonderfully surprising end, even if it means some infractions of the community discipline.

I greatly enjoy Peters’ portrait of life in medieval Shrewsbury, her well-drawn and often humorous characters, the romantic themes that run through all of the stories and her depiction of human conflict as a universal problem through time. I sometimes wonder though if Cadfael might be a bit anachronistic in his thoughts and behavior, more the ideal twentieth-century healer of the spirit and champion of justice than the simple, kindly, herbalist monk of medieval times. Even given the background Peters creates for him as a soldier in the crusades and a lover of many beautiful women before he joined the order, he seems a bit worldly at times.

But never mind. These books are great fun and I would be looking for more, but Pargeter died last year and with her Cadfael, a great loss to me and many others.

Another author who explores religious themes through mysteries is Faye Kellerman. I find Kellerman’s mysteries real page turners because of well-crafted plots and good descriptive narrative. In one of her most recent books, Prayers for the Dead, she explores the responsibilities of men and women to the family through a contemporary Catholic, Protestant and Jewish lens.

Kellerman does not use a cleric as detective. Instead her main character is a police detective, Peter Decker, who has reclaimed his Jewish heritage in the process of a romance with an Orthodox widow named Rina. In the first few books of this series we watch the recently divorced, insecure, lonely, and alienated Los Angeles policeman, Peter, who grew up with adoptive Baptist parents, get convinced and converted to Orthodox Judaism, marry Rina and become a happy, though harried, father and family man.

In Prayers, Peter investigates the murder of a prominent surgeon with evangelical leanings whose large family includes a son who has become a Catholic priest. Kellerman poses the question among others, “how does one lead a balanced life in light of modern demands of profession, family and personal interests,” a question with which I struggle often. Peter, the priest, several colleagues of the doctor and even Rina struggle with their responsibility to their family as opposed to other commitments.

As do other good authors I have read, Faye Kellerman asks questions, explores the implications through the thoughts and actions of various characters but never presents a perfect solution. She leaves you to ponder the question long after you have finished the book.

In recent years I have discovered that a few Quakers have written murder mysteries. Some, like Sarah Smith of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, New England Yearly Meeting, write wonderful novels full of murder, suspense and social commentary but do not focus on religion or Friends at all. Sarah Smith has published two, The Vanished Child and The Knowledge of Water, but neither mentions Quakers. Other Quaker authors, such as Stanley Ellin, who won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America three times, have written many books, one or two of which have some Quaker content.

In the 1970s I often enjoyed sitting on the porch at New York Yearly Meeting and chatting with Stanley Ellin, member of Brooklyn Monthly Meeting. Though I knew he was an author, it wasn’t until after his death that I discovered he wrote mystery/suspense stories and that in 1973 he had published a mystery about Quakers titled Stronghold. After many years of searching for a copy and viewing a rather disappointing video version, one of two available, Chuck Fager loaned me a copy of the book for this review. I recommend it highly as a good read and perhaps the best advertisement for the Quaker ideal of overcoming violence through group prayer, discernment and nonviolent action.

The story takes place in rural, upstate New York, in fact an area Ellin had become familiar with while attending Yearly Meeting. The wealthy, leading family of a tiny monthly meeting comes under siege by a group of heavily armed ex-cons, one of whom they had taken into their home as a wayward teen. After violently assaulting both men and women in the family, the ex-cons demand millions of dollars from the family-owned bank and take the women hostage until the money and transportation are provided.

Drawing from their experience with nonviolent resistance and Friends’ practice of corporate silent worship to discern correct action, the whole meeting pulls together to face this psychopathic murderer and his three henchmen.

Ellin’s Quaker characters are very real. I know every one of the members of the meeting he creates because they are in my meeting and in every meeting of which I have been a part. As they gather for meeting for worship with attention to business to decide how to handle the situation, the members of the meeting reveal themselves: Anna and Elizabeth, two elderly but tough spinsters who want to take the place of the women hostages, the Quimbys, a young couple who are pressured by the demands of work and family life but are still the peace and social action Friends in the meeting; and Uri, a Nazi concentration camp survivor who at first lacks the faith that evil can be overcome by the nonviolent action proposed, especially since it involved telling lies.

The necessity to lie is explored extensively through the thoughts of Marcus Hayworth, the head of the family under siege, who tells much of the story. Suspense-filled and quite bloody to the very end, Stronghold does an excellent job of exploring the central Friends concept that although people behave in evil ways, there is some of God in each of us, even the most disturbed and violent.

Stronghold has become my favorite mystery to recommend to a seeker trying to grasp Quaker faith and practice. It does a more complete job of communicating Friends testimony and practice than Chuck Fager’s attempt in Murder Among Friends. On the other hand, Fager has a flair missing in Ellin’s work. Though it seems as if Marcus in Stronghold is modeled partly after the man Ellin aspires to be, the character is missing the wit and humor of the author. One of the best things about Murder Among Friends is the way Chuck Fager has modeled the central character after himself, capturing some of his best elements, his humor, his love of history and his desire to get the story.

Fager sets Murder, his first mystery, at a pan-Quaker conference in the western Virginia hills. All types of Friends gather for an exchange of ideas, but end up witnessing the murder of a prominent evangelical preacher who has been invited to address the group. The book is made richer by the inclusion of local Virginia and Quaker history and one well drawn character, a Quaker elder named Lemuel Penn. Our narrator, a rather innocent, hapless, gentle reporter, a Fager seem-alike, hangs out with Penn as they both try to limit the violence and understand how and why the murder was committed.

Unfortunately, the plot seems somewhat far-fetched and Fager has a strange way of portraying women, especially strong Quaker women. He has a long way to go before he reaches the skill of Daisy Newman, the New England Quaker author of a series of novels about Friends. The women and men in Newman’s novels ring so true to my experience that I’ve often wondered which came first, the people or her portrayal. Nevertheless, I think Fager succeeds in his attempt to write an enjoyable book that provides some information about contemporary rifts in Quakerism and teaches non-Friends and seekers a bit about Friends.

I’m not entirely sure what Fager is attempting in his second mystery, Unfriendly Persuasion. Again the main character is a mild-mannered Fager clone, this time a postal worker, Chuck’s former bread labor. Again the women behave strangely. They all seem to be pressed from a stereotypical mold and have very little initiative or brains. There is much less Friendly content here than in Murder but I still found Unfriendly an enjoyable read as it tackled some questions about integrity in our modern world. I look forward to the next Fager mystery and feel he has a much more positive future as a fiction writer than as an investigative reporter stirring up controversy among Friends.

The final set of mysteries that I want to review: Quaker Silence, Quaker Witness, Quaker Testimony, and Quaker Indictment, were all written recently by Irene Allen. Allen became familiar with Friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts while she was doing graduate work at Harvard University. She attended Friends Meeting at Cambridge and ultimately became a member of the Society. Three of her four mysteries are set in Cambridge and all have Elizabeth Elliot, Clerk of the meeting, as the detective and central character. The fourth mystery takes place in Washington State, where Elizabeth goes to visit a former college roommate and ends up investigating a murder near the grounds of the Hanford Nuclear Plant.

Allen describes Friends’ practice extensively in all of the books, all the plots revolve around issues of concern facing contemporary Friends in their meetings and personal lives and most of the well developed characters are Quakers. This plus the familiar, well-described settings (I attended Cambridge Meeting for 5 years and lived in the Northwest for two), made these books an enjoyable read for me.

However, I would hesitate to recommend them enthusiastically to someone as capturing the full spirit of Quakerism. For a long time I have pondered why this is so. One reason is that Allen’s descriptions of Quaker faith and practice sometimes become ponderous and preachy. Perhaps this is because she is a new Friend.

In addition, I find she dwells too much on the negative, ending each of the books with Elizabeth Elliot weighed down with concerns about members of the meeting and the world. Especially in the last book, she dwells overly on Elizabeth’s age and the physical limitations that she suffers. We are left with the sense that Quakers are stodgy, handicapped, dour, old people who carry the cares of the world on their shoulders.

This is not my experience. One of the reasons I am a Friend is that most Friends know how to have a good time, expressing joy often and moderating their serious intent to do good by exercising a healthy sense of humor. In this way, I find Ellin’s and Fager’s mysteries paint a better portrait of the Society of Friends. More important, they provide a better chance to kick back and relax.

Let me conclude this review with the following paraphrase, “So many religious murder mysteries, so little time,” and the hope that you will find some of those I have discussed or others, please read them relaxation, fun and sometimes, a little bit of spiritual growth.


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