Catholics are currently under scrutiny in newspapers and talk shows for
their sins, both real and imagined. But other reading materials such as mystery
fiction contain many illustrations of religious characters and themes that make
possible a systematic analysis of their depiction. As part of a broader
study, we looked at images of Catholics in over 20 mystery series published
since 1980 that feature adult women sleuths.
Early mystery fiction traditionally eschewed issues of social import. As
Jon L. Breen notes:
[In earlier decades] …any deep consideration of religious
teachings and values was generally off limits as was the inclusion of any
character or situation that might put the church in a bad light.
The current trend is to incorporate social issues as major themes.
Religion as a Background Factor
Religious practices were often part of the Catholic sleuth’s family
life. One heroine remembers being taught by “Sister Mary Angelica
Hitler.” Another sleuth describes herself as a “fallen-away
Catholic,” who found the Church “distant, judgmental and incapable
of loving her.” Joanne Dobson’s protagonist defined the
Church as patriarchal and unsupportive when she was trapped in an abusive
marriage. Both of Mary Daheim’s heroines gave birth out of wedlock; Susan
Dunlap’s P.I. is anti-clerical. Allana Martin’s protagonist lights
candles to St. Jude when she loses something and prays the Hail Mary when taking
off in an airplane. These activities reflect the sum total of her practice of
the faith. Though the women’s specific reasons differ, the result for each
protagonist is the same – abandonment of the Church and often the
Religion as Cultural Identity
Sometimes a heroine is not observant, but does identify with the
heritage and history of her ethnic group, including its faith. Carolina
Garcia-Aguilera’s P.I. was raised in a Cuban-American family by a devout
mother. The detective and her sisters attended parochial schools. Yet her
current attitudes are clearly at odds with Church teaching: she favors
ordination for women, gay rights and remarriage of the divorced. Her own
behavior is no more in keeping with the strictures of her faith - she has had a
series of affairs, does not attend Mass nor does she receive the sacraments. Yet
she defines herself as culturally Catholic.
Catholic Nuns as Detectives
Ralph McInerny, writing under the pseudonym of Monica Quill, created Sister
Mary Teresa Dempsey (“Emtee”) and the first post-1980 series
featuring a Catholic nun. She is one of only three members of the defunct Order
of Martha and Mary, which “a majority of her sisters, misinterpreting
Vatican II, had renewed … almost out of existence.” The
remaining elderly trio continues to follow the behavior and attitudes of the 200
year-old Order’s foundress and still wears the traditional habit. Emtee is
reminiscent of Nero Wolfe: short, very heavy set, and passionate about two
things – crime detection and twelfth century French monasticism. She plays
armchair detective from the confines of the convent while others do the legwork
to follow up on her hunches.
In the mid-1980s with the publication of a novel written by a nun,
featuring a nun-sleuth, the activities and interests of those in religious life
were more realistically presented. The author, Sister Carol Anne O’Marie,
CSJ, explained that the character she created reflects her background and her
desire to correct some stereotypes of nuns:
Contrary to some prevailing conceptions, the majority of women religious
are well educated, forceful, and courageous with very little, if anything, to
hide … I wanted a nun who was unflappable, warm-hearted, salty, and
Sr. O’Marie’s amateur detective – Sister Mary
Helen – is a retired teacher in her 70s. Though she lives in a convent and
faith is dominant in her life, she is hardly cloistered; she is very concerned
about worldly matters and is something of a social activist. The chapter
headings as well as the book titles in this series reflect the Catholic
Church’s calendar and its terminology (e.g.: A Novena for Murder, The
Missing Madonna, Murder in Ordinary Time). Sr. Helen’s outside
interests include reading the mysteries which she carries concealed in a prayer
book cover. These outside interests invariably get her involved in crime.
The newly created nun of the 1990s –though younger and definitely
worldlier – is more implausible. Winona Sullivan introduces Sister Cecile
Buddenbrooks, a beautiful heiress. After graduating from Barnard College, she
became a licensed private investigator. Her P.I.’s license allows her to
raise money for her convent by being retained to catch murderers. Her religious
life-style is also compromised by the presence of the 12 year-old daughter of a
friend who works abroad for the United States government; his wife is dead and
so Cecile functions as the child’s guardian whenever he is away. She has
come to think of the girl as her own:
How could a mother love a child more than she loved Leonie? How
could she stand so much love without bursting? It interfered with her
life, her thoughts, even her praying. Was real motherhood that devastating and
Of course, in the real world the child’s presence would be
unacceptable given the norms of religious communities.
Nuns in Lesser Roles
In Garcia-Aguilera’s series the sleuth’s sister, Lourdes, is a
nun who spends much of her time at the family’s mansion, where the
servants cater to her. She carries a cellular telephone in a pocket she has sewn
into her clothes, wears Victoria’s Secret lingerie and regularly has her
eyebrows plucked and her bikini line waxed. The sleuth refers to Lourdes as a
“Cuppie,” a Cuban yuppie. Her father has contributed heavily to the
religious order Lourdes joined with the proviso that she not be sent to the
missions. An exile who fled Fidel Castro’s regime, he is ideologically
opposed to missionary work, which he perceives to be supportive of the
Sandinistas. The order’s acceptance of the stipulation flies in the face
of Catholicism’s proselytizing nature.
In A Miracle in Paradise, the sleuth is hired by Lourdes’s
Mother Superior to investigate a religious community whose members have
predicted that on Cuban Independence Day their statue of Our Lady of Charity,
the Cuban Virgin, will shed tears to express her sadness about the political
splintering of her people – the exiles versus Fidel Castro’s
supporters. The Order sets up a telephone number for information about the
predicted event: 1-800-MIRACLE or, for Spanish-speaking callers, 1-800-MILAGROS.
The P.I. reveals the prediction is a hoax of which several nuns were aware.
Moreover, a few were implicated in a murder plot. The detective muses:
The order hasn’t had a miracle in a hundred years. They needed
something to keep the order alive, to keep young women joining. A fresh miracle,
one with a profound political dimension and such spectacular possibilities was
just what they had to be looking for.
Lourdes’ Mother Superior is depicted as a jealous, resentful and
ambitious woman who viewed the newly arrived order as a threat—a
competitor for donations and novices.
Occasionally a particular plot brings a laywoman to a convent. In Susan
Wittig Albert’s Rueful Death, the heroine goes on a retreat-style
vacation. But it turns into a new case: one of the nuns is an arsonist and
poison-pen letter writer; the same nun is also implicated in an accidental
homicide. The convent’s chaplain, an early suspect, is a pedophile whom
the local bishop has placed “on probation” at the convent.
Though several nuns are obviously well liked and respected, the overall image of
Catholic religious is clearly negative.
Priests and Catholic Movements
Priests are few in number and usually play very minor roles in the books
surveyed. There is simply a mention that the sleuth’s brother is a priest
in Jane Rubino’s Death of a DJ. Similarly, Mary Daheim’s
Holy Terrors is set in a Catholic Church and the staff are minor
characters. But in two series the sleuth has a brother who is a priest with an
active role in the novels. Sandra Prowell’s private investigator finds her
brother passionately kissing his former girlfriend in the basement of his
parish. Lachnit’s amateur sleuth discovers that her brother, a young
Monsignor seemingly destined for an outstanding career in the Church, is a
murderer. Other clergy in A Blessed Death, the remaining members of
Sanctus (a radical cult within Catholicism), include a pedophile, a thief and a
bishop who has impregnated a young woman.
Men of the cloth may also be supporting characters when the detective is
investigating a church-related matter. In Sara Paretsky’s Killing
Orders, the culprits who stole securities from a priory are high-ranking
members of Corpus Christi, a conservative movement within Catholicism with ties
to corporate conspirators and underworld figures. In Connie Shelton’s
Honeymoons Can Be Murder a supposedly “saintly” priest stole
priceless artifacts while stationed at the Vatican and in Israel.
Entire religiously inspired movements may also be presented in a bad
light. Consider the Native American sleuth’s view of missionaries in Naomi
The devils that missionaries had accused the Quinaults of worshipping
were in the whites’ own minds, [she] thought, and represented the
intruders’ personal fear of anyone different from themselves … [T]he
love the missionaries claimed to be bringing was tainted with racism and hatred.
A sort of “follow my God and clean my toilet” mentality.
Only occasionally are there positive representations of Catholic
organizations. In Jerrilynn Farmer’s Immaculate Reception, the
non-Catholic heroine stumbles upon an old confession revealing that Pope Pius XI
was poisoned by Nazi-sympathizers who posed as friends of Vatican clergy and
supposedly helped them to hide Jews. The murder occurred just before the Pontiff
was to have issued an encyclical, drafted by Rev. John Lafarge, SJ, denouncing
Nazism and anti-Semitism. The group stole the draft of the document, which never
surfaced in Farmer’s story. Paretsky’s Total Recall casts a
priest as a minor character credited with protecting victims of abuse and
domestic violence. This image differs markedly from her earlier fictional
priests. Finally, in Pat Welch’s Still Waters a semi-secret network
of activists seeks to help refugees fleeing political repression in Central
America. The fictional network parallels the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s,
whose members spoke out against American immigration policy.
Few mystery heroines subscribe to a faith. But when one is identified with a
religion, her affiliation is usually merely nominal or cultural. Moreover,
protagonists are likely to be pro-choice and possibly promiscuous indicating
that religion has little impact on their attitudes or behavior. The portrayal of
Catholic characters other than the sleuth is largely negative and may be
alarming to those concerned with images of the Church and its faithful in
current American popular culture.
Frances DellaCava resides in New York City. She received her
Ph.D. from Fordham University; her doctoral dissertation was a study of men who
left the Roman Catholic priesthood. Currently she is assistant professor
of sociology and director of the Adult Degree Program at Lehman College.
With Prof. M. Engel she has given papers and published articles on women in
American society and, together, they have published two books analyzing the
changing role of women in American detective fiction.
Madeline H. Engel, a life-long resident of New York City, earned her doctorate
in sociology at Fordham University where she studied assimilation and
criminology with Rev. Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, SJ She is currently a
professor of sociology and the chair of the Department of Sociology and Social
Work at Herbert H. Lehman College, City University of New York. Previously she
served as the coordinator of Women’s Studies and Director of Graduate
Studies at Lehman. Dr. Engel has written numerous research monographs, articles
and reviews, as well as six books: Inequality in America; The Drug
Scene; The Italian Experience in the United States (co-edited with S.M. Tomasi);
Minorities in American Society, 6th ed. (with Charles F. Marden and
Glady Meyer); Female Detectives in American Novels (with Frances A. DellaCava);
and Sleuths in Skirts (with Frances A. DellaCava).
 Carroll Lachnit A Blessed Death (New York: Berkeley,
 Monica Quill, Nun Plussed (New York: Worldwide, 1995),
 Sister Carol Anne O’Marie, “A Habit for
Murder.” Mystery Readers Journal 8, no. 3 1992, 37.
 Winona Sullivan. Death’s a Beach (New York: Ivy,
 Naomi M. Stokes, The Listening
Ones (New York: Forge, 1997), 143.