Christian Detective Series
“Whodunit?” And with that the game is afoot. The sleuthing here is designed for readers trying to find Christian detective series and for librarians who might be attempting to augment their collection development in two related areas--Christian detective fiction series and materials for the study of Christian detective literature. Finding items that would aid this process is challenging. Hopefully this will provide a starting point in the process.
Series I have devoured over the years include Dorothy L. Sayers’s Peter Wimsey series, Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael, Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen, and Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Marple series. Of these authors, Sayers was an outspoken defender of Christianity. Crispin had strong church ties. One might infer from Peters’s works that she might well be rooted in Christianity. While Christie’s books have a high moral tone, it might be difficult to put her in the Christian camp. But I would probably recommend Christie over many authors from evangelical publishers. Why? Quality of writing would be one reason, but another is subjective--I have to like the detective. The detectives in the stories I’ve read are certainly very unlike me, but I find them interesting and entertaining. I enjoy matching wits with them as they pursue the solution to the crime. A good story will have all the clues available for me and for the detective. But which of us will be first to solve the puzzle? So in a Sayers story I can compete with Lord Peter Wimsey in solving a crime and participate with him in a life very unlike mine. In the real world I doubt that I would share ground with Lord Peter about important areas of my life such as answers to prayer, but from what I know of him he would listen respectfully to what I had to say. I appreciate Sayers character for that. His brother–in-law was not only a Christian, but studied theology. Vicars he met were thoughtful and respectable. Sayers created a world that a Christian could comfortably inhabit before drifting off to a good night’s sleep. So where to go from here to discover quality Christian detective series?
What is a Detective Story?
Two main elements of the phrase “Christian detective stories” are “Christian” and “detective.” Clearly defining each of these is difficult. As authors define tales of detection they often include such classics as Hamlet, Bel and the Dragon, Susannah and the Elders. Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel have been called “compressed” tales of detection--“In both cases, the stages of the narratives are the same: (1) the commission of a crime (disobedience of the law, in one case, and murder, in the other); (2) the confrontation and interrogation of the suspect; (3) the revelation of the guilt; (4) the punishment” (Zaslavsky, 58). “Detective” will be used here rather than “mystery” or “crime” as being more specific, though the terms are often used interchangeably. Howard Haycraft avoids the ambiguity by referring to “the modern mystery–crime–detective story” (Haycraft, v) Forty years ago the following intriguing definition appeared “…the detective story contains at least some of the following conventions: the seemingly perfect crime; the dull-wittedness of the police; the detective’s confidant who lacks his associates brilliance but who always asks questions which clarify the situation; the suspect who appears guilty from the circumstantial evidence but who is later proved innocent; the sensational denouement, in which the detective explains in minute detail who killed whom and how” (Beckson and Ganz, 54). This formula was initiated by Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes stories and even appears in some of Agatha Christie’s novels, but I doubt this was the norm even when this definition was written. For an excellent two-page definition and history of the genre see “Detective Fiction” in the Oxford Companion to English Literature (2000 edition). To excerpt from that briefly
Crime has been a staple of storytelling since its beginnings, and misdirection of the reader…about facts…or emotions…has equally had its special position, leading to striking revelations at a late crisis point. The classic English detective story marries the two elements…Writers followed [Poe] in creating detectives who were remote from the common herd, creatures of pure ratiocination, emotional hermits who observed but did not participate in the hurly-burly of life around them…The fact is that it is a popular form that engages the mind rather than the emotions has always given it a degree of respectability…The intricacy of the plots, the skill with which the author produces yet disguises the clues vital to the solution, give particular pleasure (Drabble, 276-77).
That detective stories are often referred to as “Whodunits” is simplistic, but very much to the point. In a very succinct definition of the genre W.H. Auden compares detective stories to the Aristotelian description of tragedy in which “the basic formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies…The detective story has five elements—the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives” (Winks, 15,17). Auden expounds on each of these elements at length in his essay.
What is a Christian Detective Story?
The term “Christian” as applied to detective stories presents its own difficulties. William David Spencer’s essay “Religious Mysteries” deliberately chooses an ambiguous title. In the context of the two- volume Mystery and Suspense Writers in which it appears, it is obvious he is referring to mystery stories. But “religious mysteries” in the broader theological context is also something he is alluding to as he refers to the Greek work “mysterium…the secret holiness of the divine that transcends human sense perception” (Spencer, 1161). But one soon finds out that his discussion revolves around fictional religious detectives be they Christian, Jew, whatever and be their creator sacred or profane. So a story chronicled by Spencer could possibly be an anti-religious invective using a minister or priest as a foil. Indeed, Spencer compares one story to Elmer Gantry, but because a religious detective is central, to be comprehensive Spencer includes it. On the other hand writers who themselves are from a Christian orientation such as Dorothy L. Sayers and P. D. James are not included since their detective characters do not have a religious orientation. As Spencer discusses religious mysteries he makes the following interesting observation, “Like the church, [detective] Father Brown appeared marginalized, vague, archaic, and no longer effectual. But, also like the church, he represented the indispensable moral agent missing from the modern scene” (Spencer, 1162).
Christ came into our world—the world created by and through him and by him our world consists. I find myself uncomfortable when authors attempt to bring Christ into a world they’ve created. He just doesn’t fit. Aslan because he is only similar to Christ is acceptable and I can draw parallels or recognize differences as the case may be. I would be uncomfortable if Jesus showed up in Narnia. Stephen Lawhead in his Celtic Crusades series has successfully and movingly brought Jesus into a work of fiction, but he is exceptional. I do not know of any detective story where Jesus appears. There are times when Christians show up and their characters are drawn naturally and realistically. Chesterton’s Father Brown certainly gets into discussions and meditations that probe deeply into the human condition and the role of God in our lives. Christians often show up in Dorothy L. Sayers’s novels and they are always afforded respect and grace be they vicar or illegitimate West Indian. Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage has the vicar as narrator. He is somewhat bungling and his vivacious wife hates missionaries, but the book at least acknowledges that there are people in the world who take their Christian faith seriously and that these are respectable people who would be fine to have as neighbors. So then what is a Christian detective story? Detective stories could be put on a religious spectrum. At the one end would be Father Brown outspokenly Christian and at the other might be characters whose lives are antagonistic to the Christian life. I recently saw a book entitled Gospel Lamb. The title sounded as if it could be in the religious genre, but the cover blurb indicated that it was anything but. A person might choose a book from a trusted publisher, but then there is the risk that the Christian message is forced or poorly expressed. Jay Kesler, past president of Taylor University, has often said, “Christian shoddy is still shoddy.” On the other hand the Christian message can be well presented. George MacDonald could insert whole sermons into his books, but he identified them as such. A reader could skip the whole thing if not open to a sermon at the moment and get on with the story. Or the digression could be pursued with profit. What I do not appreciate is an author trying to slip a sermon into a story hoping that I won’t notice, but that I will be edified by the experience.
Detective stories in general deal with injustices rectified and societal order restored. As ends these are certainly consonant with Christianity. Robert Zaslavsky does an excellent job of viewing detective stories through a theological lens. He synthesizes the views expressed by W. H. Auden, G. K. Chesterton, Ronald A. Knox and others. He identifies theological concepts prevalent in detective stories such as the doctrine of original sin and the detective as one who restores the original state of grace. I don’t always agree with his points. For example, he believes that suicide can be a sincere form of repentance (I believe that Peter’s repentance represented “godly sorrow,” while Judas’s did not), but I appreciate Zaslavsky’s identification of theological issues and his condensation of the work of others in this area. Incidentally, he also provides a checklist of close to thirty authors of clerical detective stories. His references to some short stories include a fascinating footnote about why Dorothy L. Sayers’s character Montague Egg could be viewed as a representative of religion.
William David Spencer’s Mysterium and Mystery may be the best book to date on the “clerical crime novel.” Spencer has three major divisions--Rabbis and Robbers, Priests and Psychopaths, and Ministers and Murderers. In the first section the apocryphal Bel and the Dragon and Susanna and the Elders are accredited with being detective stories and a second chapter is accorded to Kenselman’s Rabbi Small. Authors in the “Priests…” section include Umberto Eco (1 book), Ellis Peters (13 books), E. M. A. Allison (1), G. K. Chesterton, H. H. Holmes (2), Henri Catalan (Henria Dupuy-Mazuel) (3), Margaret Ann Hubbard (1), Leonard Holton (11), Ralph McInery (11), Dorothy Gilman (1), Carol Ann O’Maria (2), William X. Kienzle (10), and Andrew M. Greeley. As noted, several of these authors have only one or two detective books to their credit. Spencer can be credited with his thoroughness, and it may have been a very slim volume without these authors, but I would hesitate to include the authors of only one or two books as significant contributors to the field. Eco is often mentioned in studies of religious detective fiction, probably because he is a well-known author and his dark adventure was a best seller, but this does not provide him with credentials to be included in this work about detective series.
“Ministers…” includes Victor L. Whitechurch (1 book), Cyril A. Alington (4), Margaret Scherf (7), Stephen Chance (4), Barbara Ninde Byfield (4), Isabelle Holland (2), Matthew Head (4), Charles Merrill Smith (6), and James L. Johnson (6). These chapters focus on the authors, but they are often also launching pads for discussions of the works of others such as C. S. Lewis or George MacDonald or questions may be posed, such as, “Is scholastic Roman Catholicism still viable in this rationalistic, pluralistic, relativistic time in which we live?” (Spencer, Mysterium, 133)
Spencer has included a “Graph of the Clerical Crime Novel in English” that provides a visual representation of this type of detective story beginning with G. K. Chesterton’s first publication in 1910. In addition, Spencer’s eleven-page bibliography includes detective authors and their works and many “other works” germane to the study of detective fiction.
Synod of Sleuths another book about detective fiction was published about the same time as Spencer’s volume. Various authors have contributed to chapters focusing on Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, cults, and Mormon stories. The bibliography is very wide-ranging, but Spencer’s is far more helpful in describing and listing Christian detective authors.
Contemporary Christian Detective Fiction
Contributing to Christian detective series several evangelical detective series appeared in the mid-1990’s. In 1995 Bob Summer announced, “religion houses of all sizes are turning out mysteries that mirror the diversity found in their secular counterparts.” Summer traced this development to Frank Peretti’s publications in the 1980’s. A year later Joe Woodard also traced the rapid development in Christian fiction publishing to Peretti. In a recent visit I made to mid-sized public library thirty-five shelves were devoted to “Inspirational Fiction.” Westerns, romance, “thrillers,” detective stories, etc., were all intershelved, but almost all were trade paperbacks bearing the marks of evangelical publishers. Separating these titles from “secular” fiction makes it easier for those looking for “morally decent” fiction, but it definitely defeats the purpose of “Christian fiction writers today trying to reach the crossover market, the unchurched” (Henry Carrigan as quoted in Woodard, 36).
Several Christian detective series began in the mid-nineties, but most were rather short-lived. In one case the editor handling the detective series was released by the publisher and that brought an end to the series, but for the most part these series were probably terminated because they did not have the desired sales figures. Jana Riess contended in 2001 “the last few years have seen an upsurge in the quantity, and in many cases the quality, of spiritually themed mystery fiction” (Riess, 44). But she draws widely for her article including a story collection published by Intrigue Press Unholy Orders, P. D. James’ Death in Holy Orders, and Deborah Woodworth’s sixth book Dancing Death in her Shaker series for Avon among others she lists from “Secular Houses”. Under “Christian Mystery” Reiss highlights Terri Blackstock as one of the stock authors, but Blackstock’s work she more aptly titles “suspense thriller.” Only two authors in her list qualify for a Christian detective series--Dee Henderson publishing for Multnomah and Sally S. Wright also for Multnomah.
Two publications valuable for listing Christian detective stories include Detecting Women and Detecting Men. These fascinating volumes cover over 1200 living authors of detective series. In the “Master List” paragraphs about the authors are included and their detectives are identified. Other chapters list series characters alphabetically by names along with their occupation and setting; geographic setting; a title chronology; an alphabetic list of titles; pseudonyms; and works. The important chapter for this study is the one attempting to classify the authors by mystery type. There is an “Ecclesiastical and Religious” section. The author listed is not necessarily religious, but their characters are pastors, priests, rabbis, nuns, etc. Twelve such are identified in Detecting Men and nineteen in Detecting Women. An author such as B. J. Hoff while clearly identified in the master list as one who publishes for Tyndale House and whose characters work for a Christian radio station is not included in the Ecclesiastical and Religious section since the characters are not clergy members.
Detective Series from Evangelical Presses
A good starting point for identifying contemporary Christian detective fiction is Christian Fiction. John Mort has categorized and rated close to 2000 works of fiction published from the mid 1990’s to 2002 (for the most part) and provided annotations for the majority of the titles he includes. One of the purposes of his volume is to provide a “collection development tool” for librarians, but it can certainly be used by individuals in pursuing their own paths through Christian fiction. Evangelical publishers predominate.
Mort’s “Mysteries and Thrillers” chapter subdivides into “Mysteries, Gumshoe Detective, Medical Mysteries, Pastors as Sleuths, and Serial Killers (fortunately only two titles in this final category). There are forty-one authors listed with thirty-six of these designated as being published by evangelical publishers. Four of forty-one are listed as authors for young adult readers, though there is another section in the book devoted to Young Adult Fiction with a subdivision “Mysteries”. (Interestingly Jake and Luke Thoene’s “Baker Street Mysteries” series is listed under twentieth century British historical novels and not mysteries, but anyone who has ever done cataloging knows what kinds of dragons lie in wait for classifiers of materials.) Mort designates ten of the authors as providing “exceptional literary merit” and he singled out approximately ten individual novels from the remaining list of authors for that same accolade. Mort has a separate section for Catholic fiction where he lists “Nuns and Priests as Sleuths.”
The authors in these sections having detective series include the following. Most series are rather short. Mort includes helpful comments about each series. Authors are starred per Mort’s evaluation. I’ve also indicated when an author can be found in Detecting Women or Detecting Men.
Bly, Stephen and Janet Bly (3 books) 1996-1998
* Drekson, Athol (2 books) 1996-1998
Hoff, B. J. (5 books) 1996-1997 [D. W.]
* Miller, Janice (2 books)
Roper, Gayle (3 books) 1997-2000
Rushford, Patricia (4 books) [D. W.]
* Sprinkle, Patricia (2 books) 1997–1998
Davis, Wally (4 books) 1994–1997
Funderburk, Robert (4 books) 1996–1999
Pastors as Sleuths
Delffs, D. J. (2 books) 1998–1999
Kritlow, William (3 books) 1995–1997
* Parker, Gary E. (3 books) 1994–1997
Chesterton, G. K. 1911–1935
Nuns & Priests as Sleuths
Black, Veronica (10 books) 1990–1998 [D. W.]
Coel, Margaret (7 books) 1995–2001 [D. W.]
Kienzle, William X. (22 books) 1979–2001 [D. W.]
McInery, Ralph (20) – Father Dowling 1977 – 2000
(8) – Sister Mary Theresa 1981 – 1993
Reynolds, Brad 4 books 1996 – 1999
Frazer, Margaret (10) 1992 – 2000 In D. W.
Peters, Ellis (20) 1977 – 1994 Not in D. W. 3rd edition, but in 2nd
Greeley, Andrew (16) Father Blackie Ryan 1985 – 2000 [D.M.]
(5) Nuala Anne McGrail 1994 – 2000
The values of an author or of the author’s main character may well not line up with my values or interests. Most of us cannot sample all of the detective stories that are published—there are hundreds every year. Of course many times it is just the recommendations of friends whose opinions we respect. Sometimes those may be friends we do not even know who have taken the trouble of surveying the literature. They provide us with guides to help us in our search for a good read. Following are recommendations I’ve received or read in addition to those included in the list above:
Simon Beaufort (Susanna Gregory)--Sir Geoffrey de Mappestone series
Kate Charles--Book of Psalms series
Mindy Starns Clark
Jeanne M. Dams
D. (Diane) M. Greenwood—Theodora Braithwaite series
Laurie R. King--Mary Russell series
David Manuel—Faith Abbey series
Carol Ann O'Marie--Sister Mary Helen series
Candace Robb--Owen Archer series
Robert L. Wise—Sam and Vera Sloan series
(Incidentally, since this work focuses on detective series a book such as Bret Lott’s Hunt Club is not on this list.)
Two books that are fun and informative are Murder Ink and Murderess Ink edited by Dilys Winn. Dozens of detective storywriters and aficionados have contributed to these volumes that are liberally illustrated and filled with many tongue-in-cheek appreciations of the detective story. Dorothy L. Sayers, one of my favorite authors, is well–represented in both volumes. Along with serious considerations of her work there are four pages of paper–doll cut–outs for Harriet Vane’s wardrobe. Catherine Aird has an essay in Murder Ink “The Devout: Vicars, Curates and Relentlessly Inquisitive Cleric” which includes a table of “Divine Reading” with twenty-two recommended authors representative of her theme listed. Catherine Aird herself qualifies for this list her first book being Religious Body and most recent of sixteen being Chapter and Hearse. To digress Aird has also been a contributor to VII the periodical produced by the Marion E. Wade Collection of Wheaton College. Aird’s work has been described as “…the leisurely, kinder, gentler crime novel” (Contemporary Authors, New Revision series, v. 58: 283) and Aird is quoted as saying, “I am trying to postulate the age-old theory between right and wrong. Describing wrong and hoping that right is going to triumph. I think this is one of the reasons that I enjoy…detective fiction. It’s very clear-cut. … With fiction anyway, you can always have good winning. I don’t think it happens in real life by any means, but it’s rather nice to be able to have it happen in fiction” (Ibid). This may well be one of the major attractions of Christian detective stories.
A few individuals are crusading against detective stories saying that they glorify or promote murder. Some have experienced a murder of a family member and object to murder being viewed as recreational reading. Murder is typically the crime addressed in a detective story. I feel this is generally the case [note pun] to make it worthwhile for a reader to wade through the pages of the book in order to discover the perpetrator and bring him/her to justice. An incident of shoplifting would not hold the same degree of concern. But what can be tolerated in fiction might well be reprehensible in real life. If a person were to discover an actual corpse they might well be deeply affected. In Ellis Peters’s One Corpse too Many there are multiple bodies hanging from a castle wall and Brother Cadfael counts and finds one too many. If a person were to actually view such a scene they might well become violently ill.
Locale can also be important to the enjoyment of a detective story. I enjoy British mysteries. The British Isles are just exotic enough and enough far-removed that I am transported to a different realm in the reading. Perhaps having a murder far removed makes it more acceptable. If a murder were set in my neighbor’s house--or mine for that matter--I would be disturbed. An added appeal of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series may be that not only are the stories geographically distant, but they are also set hundreds of years in the past.
One of the appeals of detective stories is the triumph of good over evil--justice prevails. But it is interesting how often the law is violated in the interests of justice. Breaking and entering is approved--actually expected--by Sherlock Holmes or Lord Peter. It is one of the advantages of the private investigators over the police—the private investigator does not feel compelled to obey the law. In the Agent 007 stories this is taken to the extreme--James Bond has a license to kill as he apprehends (usually annihilates) evildoers, ironically. On a lesser note a person might gloss over behavior in fiction that would be antithetical to usual mores--a lapse in academic integrity becomes reprehensible while Uncle’s activities with the maid in the potting shed gets only a wink. Even though such incidents are fictional, perhaps they should be at least somewhat troubling.
Items starred represent recommendations for a basic library for the research of detective fiction and particularly Christian detective series.
*Aird, Catherine. “The Devout: Vicars, Curates, and Relentlessly Inquisitive Clerics.”
Murder Ink (1984): 134-138.
Ashley, Mike. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction.
New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002
Beckson, Karl and Arthur Ganz. Literary Terms: A Dictionary.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
Breen, Jon L. and Martin H. Greenberg, eds. Synod of Sleuths: Essays on Judeo-
Christian Detective Fiction. Metuchen N.J and London: The Scarecrow Press,
Clarke, Stephan P. The Lord Peter Wimsey Companion.
New York: The Mysterious Press, 1985.
Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Hawkins, David G. “Whodunit Theology.”
Christianity Today (1990): 38-39
*Haycraft, Howard, eds. The Art of the Mystery Story.
New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. 1974.
*Heising, Willetta L. Detecting Men: A Reader’s Guide and Checklist for Mystery Series
Written by Men. Dearborn, MI: Purple Moon Press, 1998
*Heising, Willetta L. Detecting Women: A Reader’s Guide and Checklist for Mystery Series
Written by Women. 3rd ed. Dearborn, MI: Purple Moon Press, 2000.
*Kellogg, Rachel. “The Secret of Father Brown: What is Christian Detective Fiction?”
Inklings Forever: Volume IV: A Collection of Essays Presented at the Fourth Francis White Ewbank Colloquium on C. S. Lewis and Friends. Upland, IN: Taylor University, 2004.
Langstaff, M. “Getting Clued In: Series are Serious.”
The Publishers Weekly 247 (1995): 44-46
*Mort, John. Christian Fiction: A Guide to the Genre.
Greenwood Villiage, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 2002.
Riess, Jana. “Flirting with the Divine Mystery.”
Publishers Weekly (2001): 44
*Spencer, William David. Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.
Spencer, William David. “Religious Mysteries.”
Mystery and Suspense Writers (1998): 1101-1182.
Ward, Patricia A. “Moral Ambiguities and the Crime Novels of P. D. James.”
Christian Century 101 (2001): 519-520.
*Winks, Robin W., ed. Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.
*Winn, Dilys. Murder Ink.
New York: Workman Publishing, 1977.
Winn, Dilys. Murderess Ink.
New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1979.
Wood, Ralph C. “Deep Mysteries.”
Christian Century 117 (2000): 269
Woodward, Joe. “Christian Thrillers Get Down to Earth.”
Newsmagazine 23 (1996)
*Zaslavsky, R. “The Divine Detective in Guilty Vicarage.”
The Armchair Detective 19 (1986): 58-68