Three Clerical Mysteries

Jul 22, 2017 | 2017 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

“He thought his detective brain as good as the criminal’s, which was true. But he fully realized the disadvantage. ‘The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic.’” — G. K. Chesterton

Police procedurals dazzle us on the page and screen with their systematic use of investigative and forensic tools while their detectives wrestle with case files and clearance rates. Private investigators struggle with their own set of similar issues but more often have the time to devote themselves exclusively to one case at a time without, however, the safety net of police authority and resources. What this means is that the amateur detective is a cool, clean breeze on a sticky, humid day to many of us who read or watch mysteries. Few amateurs make better detectives than the clergy who assess human problems from a different starting point than either police or private investigators. The clergy has a vested interest in human behavior, particularly as it relates to daily life, informed by the creeds they espouse. They most often come at investigation to clear a friend or parishioner, rather than in a professional capacity to solve crimes.

bookG.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, S.J. Parris’s Giordano Bruno, and Charles Merrill Smith’s C.P. Randollph may vary widely in religious ideology but all three work within the confines of religious belief and all find themselves putting their honed reasoning abilities up against murderers often found within the confines of their flocks. Father Brown Complete Collection (2016) demonstrates that Father Brown’s innocence is his best weapon against the unreason of crime as he persists in catching his crooks with an “unseen hook” in the stories Chesterton wrote about the little priest. Heresy (2011) begins in sixteenth century Naples where Giordano Bruno had the misfortune to belong to a religious body that persecuted its members who failed to conform to prevalent dogma, so Parris wisely sends him to debate philosophy at Oxford University in heretic Queen Elizabeth’s England. In Smith’s Reverend Randollph and the Wages of Sin (1974), C.P. Randollph parlays his canniness as a former pro football player into serving as visiting pastor to the largest and most wealthy church in Chicago, forming an as-needed working relationship with the city’s most up-and-coming homicide detective, Lt. Michael Casey.

tvReaders learn straightaway that although Father Brown on the page differs greatly in plot devices and characters from the BBC Television series currently on Netflix, the TV series makes every effort to capture the essential sharp but kindly nature Chesterton created. Since the fifty-three short stories Chesterton wrote are collected in one volume (by more than one publisher), all the stories are easy to find. As Chesterton wrote Father Brown, there are few hostile police officials to hamper his investigations and his relationship with his much sought lost sheep, Flambeau, evolves quite differently. Each story has a spiritual message or lesson to be learned as do the TV episodes, and although they bear the same title as episodes, they are intriguingly different, sometimes suffering in translation to the screen, sometimes not. Readers will recognize the beloved character invigorated, biking ferociously from parishioner to parishioner just as determined to save sinners as protect the vulnerable.

bookMany of us are aware of the brilliant and rebellious intellect of Giordano Bruno, but S.J. Parris adds the job descriptions of detective and spy in her series of novels about this unconventional priest. In Heresy, Bruno’s penchant for reading forbidden books and entertaining heretical scientific ideas has branded him a heretic in his religious order, causing him to flee Italy barely ahead of the Inquisition to become one of Sir Francis Walsingham’s spies. Bruno travels to Oxford University agreeing to debate Galileo’s heliocentric cosmology, but after a less than satisfactory debate, he is stunned along with the rest of the faculty when one of their number is brutally murdered. The murders do not stop and as he feels compelled to investigate the deaths, Bruno finds himself most often in congenial and clever female company, adding yet another element of the forbidden into the mix. The attention to historic detail in the novel enriches the narrative and places readers in the heart of Renaissance England.

bookI found Charles Merrill Smith’s Methodist minister, C.P. Randollph, a deeply optimistic character, optimism being a quality much to be admired in a potential minister as we know. In Reverend Randollph and the Wages of Sin we meet the former NFL quarterback, famed for his ability to out-think and out-maneuver his opponents on the football field, having come through a turning point in his life. He has chosen to leave professional sports and elects instead to teach church history on the university level at a quiet parochial college in California. How Randollph comes to be chosen to fill the post of temporary pastor at The Church of the Good Shepard in the heart of Chicago is a tale best told by the Bishop of Chicago. Once there, he finds a wealthy church that suffers from graft among its board members and even a murder discovered in the empty choir rehearsal hall soon after he accepts the post. Add a sassy, beautiful TV chat show host who proclaims herself an atheist to the plot and Randollph is thoroughly intrigued and beguiled. I think you will be too.

These three religious men come from diverse eras, disciplines, and beliefs, but all share a talent for detection and faith that informs their lives even when they wrestle with the problem of evil from within and outside their ranks. All have to contend with small minds, the dishonest among them, and hypocrisy often on an institutional scale, but they also have the great advantage of dedication to a mission. The fact that they answer to a higher authority than the law of the land does not exempt them from responsibility to that law and all strive to “justify the ways of God to man.”

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this with us.


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