Just Good Company
A Cyberjournal of Religion and Culture
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Literary Criticism? Why not? Here, we present an essay by two New Yorkers, both Fordham grads, who take a look at Catholic women detectives, as seen in U.S. fiction.

Catholics Under The Magnifying Glass:
Views In American Mystery Fiction

Frances A. Della Cava and Madeline H. Engel

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.”[3] Another sleuth describes herself as a “fallen-away Catholic,” who found the Church “distant, judgmental and incapable of loving her.”[4] 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 faith.

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.”[5] 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 lovable. [6]

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 wonderful? [7]

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.[8]

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 Stokes’ work:

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.[9]

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).

[1] Frances A. DellaCava and Madeline H. Engel, Sleuths in Skirts. NY: Routledge, 2002.

[2] Jon L. Breen , “Introduction,” in Ed Gorman et al. (eds.), The Fine Art of Murder (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1993), 141.

[3] M. D. Lake, Murder by Mail (New York: Avon, 1993), 157.

[4] Carroll Lachnit A Blessed Death (New York: Berkeley, 1996), 12.

[5] Monica Quill, Nun Plussed (New York: Worldwide, 1995), 1.

[6] Sister Carol Anne O’Marie, “A Habit for Murder.” Mystery Readers Journal 8, no. 3 1992, 37.

[7] Winona Sullivan. Death’s a Beach (New York: Ivy, 1998), 17.

[8] Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, A Miracle in Paradise New York: Avon, 1999), 264.

[9] Naomi M. Stokes, The Listening Ones (New York: Forge, 1997), 143.