Saturday, October 29, 2011

Celebrating Mysteries: A Bit of Clerical Potpourri

My celebration of Church Library Month concludes this week with a bit of clerical potpourri: Quakers, Shakers, a rabbi, and a member of the Vatican's secret service.

It's been a fun and interesting month, and-- like all the other months-- I've found myself adding to my to-be-read shelves and to my wishlist. I hope you have, too!

This subgenre is such an interesting juxtaposition of faith and crime that it's no wonder it's very popular. In a way I suppose you could call it the ultimate fight between Good and Evil-- men and women of the cloth versus those who think nothing of breaking the laws of God and man.

Before we get started with this week's featured authors and books, I'd like to mention an excellent resource I discovered while researching information on this subgenre: Philip Grosset's Clerical Detectives. If this subgenre interests you, I strongly recommend that you visit his website!

Irene Allen
Irene Allen is the pen name of Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a former faculty member in Washington State University's Department of Geology (where she was known as the Rock Doc). She holds degrees from both Yale and Harvard. She is a practicing Quaker, and under her pen name, she's published four mysteries featuring Elizabeth Elliot, a sixty-something widowed Quaker meeting clerk in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The books in the series are: Quaker Silence (1992) -- sitting on my to-be-read shelves; Quaker Witness (1993); Quaker Testimony (1996); and Quaker Indictment (1998).

Here is what Publishers Weekly had to say about Quaker Silence:

Reflection rather than heart-pounding action marks this subdued and sober first mystery by the pseudonymous Allen. When a devout member of the Society of Friends in Cambridge, Mass., is murdered, other members of the community confront volatile, timely issues, including homelessness and sexual preference. As the Clerk of the Friends Meeting, 66-year-old widow Elizabeth Elliot moderates Quaker gatherings and informally counsels her peers. It is she who encourages them to accept a homeless man at the weekly services of silent prayer, and she who calmly presides over a vigorous debate about whether to recognize homosexual marriage as valid. The murder victim was a wealthy Quaker businessman who was opposed to gay unions; his announcement that he planned to revise his will , made at a Sunday meeting shortly before his death, suggests that the killer is a Quaker. Saddened by events and determined to see justice served, Elizabeth methodically investigates, a process involving discussing the crime over tea with friends and suspects. This mellow, well-orchestrated debut may seem tame to readers accustomed to violence and displays of intense emotion. 

Harry Kemelman
Harry Kemelman was a professor of English and the creator of one of the most famous religious sleuths, Rabbi David Small. Growing up in my village library, I clearly remember just how popular his mysteries were.

Rabbi David Small did his sleuthing in Barnard's Crossing, Massachusetts. There are eleven books in the series, and they were published between 1964 and 1996. The first three are: Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964), Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966), and Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (1969).

Here's a brief synopsis of Friday the Rabbi Slept Late from Library Journal:

Kemelman's 1964 mystery launched the Rabbi David Small series and snagged an Edgar for best first novel. The plot finds the rabbi investigating the murder of a nanny no more than a stone's throw from his synagogue. His investigation, however, turns up heaps of evidence pointing to the killer's being him.

Deborah Woodworth
Deborah Woodworth had a southern Ohio childhood, near the abandoned sites of several Shaker communities, followed by a Sociology of Religion Ph.D., which inspired her to create a Shaker mystery series set in Depression-era Kentucky.

As a teenager, I visited the Shaker community of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky. I fell in love with the place, so the setting and the religious sect both led me to start reading (and enjoying) this series.

In it, Sister Rose Callahan, eldress of a dwindling Shaker village, does the sleuthing, often with the energetic assistance of her young friend, Gennie Malone, an orphan brought up by the Shakers. There are six books in the series. The first three are: Death of a Winter Shaker (1997), A Deadly Shaker Spring (1998), and Sins of a Shaker Summer (1999).

Here is a synopsis of Death of a Winter Shaker:

The peaceful Shakers, pledged to hard work, worship and nonviolence could scarcely believe there was a dead body in their herb house. The handsome young drifter known as a "Winter Shaker" had professed to be a Believer to find refuge from the cold and the Depression. Now he'd gotten himself murdered.

Shaker Sister Rose Callahan, with her practical knowledge and worldly experience is assigned to find answers the sheriff refuses to consider-even if it mean discovering one of their own is the killer. But to protect a declining Shaker population, Rose must keep the sinful details hidden from the outside world. What the good Sister uncovers among the brethren are more than a tad of Earthly temptations, some un-Godly rivalry, and enough shameful secrets to raise havoc among the faithful...and to tempt some misguided soul to commit the most diabolical sin of all.

Juan Gómez-Jurado
Juan Gómez-Jurado is an award winning journalist and best selling author. He is one of the most successful contemporary Spanish authors of all time.

He is the creator of Anthony Fowler, a former priest, CIA operative, and member of the Vatican's secret service.

There are currently three books in the series: God's Spy (2007), The Moses Expedition (2010), and The Traitor's Emblem (2011).

Booklist says this about God's Spy:

Italian police inspector and profiler Paola Dicanti is not one to shrink from a challenge. But she's never been up against the likes of Victor Karosky. The American priest is on a mission to murder and mutilate cardinals who have arrived in Vatican City to elect a new pope in the wake of John Paul II's death. Though Karosky's identity is revealed early on, it doesn't lessen the suspense of Spanish writer Gomez-Jurado's riveting debut. He deftly weaves together the perspectives of perpetrator and pursuers alike: cold-blooded Karosky, a sexually abused child who has become a deeply dysfunctional adult; temperamental Inspector Dicanti, forever butting heads with the territorial and often pompous Vatican City police; and enigmatic priest and former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer Anthony Fowler, whose knowledge of Karosky proves pivotal to the case. The action unfolds against the backdrop of Vatican City, where countless pilgrims have gathered, wholly unaware of the heinous crimes taking place.

I hope you've enjoyed this month's theme for Celebrating Mysteries. Join me next weekend when a whole new theme begins!


  1. I'm glad to see you mention Irene Allen's books and also Deborah Woodworth's Shaker mysteries. I've read at least one in both series. I found the Allen book very subdued, but fascinating. Not a fast paced mystery at all, but interesting in telling about the Quaker life. I've enjoyed this month's selections, Cathy!

  2. I remember the popular Rabbi series from long ago. Now I think I'd like to try the Quaker and Shaker series. We've been to Shaker villages, some inhabited, some not in New Hampshire and Maine. They are/were a very interesting sect, but with the doomsday focus that forbade sex. I wonder how many are left.

  3. Kay-- I'm glad you have!

    Barbara-- In 2006, there were only four Shakers still left... all living in southern Maine.

  4. Hi. I really like your blog. And I love sleuths who are practicing religious leaders! I just interviewed Deborah Woodworth over at my blog.

  5. HF-- Thanks so much for stopping by and letting me know about Deborah's interview!


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