A clerical detective

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, November 06, 2008 ,

There seems to be something irresistible about making priests, bishops, nuns, deacons and all sorts of clerics into detectives. It makes a certain amount of sense in that clerics have the right to go to many places others would be excluded from and enquire in a way that would be considered insolent in anybody else. Also, they are supposed to be able to understand human nature (this is a little dodgy, really) and to have divine guidance.

Detective stories are essentially conservative in their outlook and are particularly successful if a settled environment is described. What could be more settled than the environment in which most clerics inhabit, at least, in intention?

So popular clerical detectives are that there is even a website dedicated to the subject. Tory Historian is addicted to detective stories and is reasonably fond of the clerical variety. Too many of them have recently been on the leftish liberal side of the spectrum, which would not matter if all these clerics did not insist on pushing their politics into the face of the reader. Neither they nor their authors appear to understand the essential conservatism of the detective story genre.

A certain amount of liberalism creeps into one of the best series of clerical detection from the nineties, that of D. M. Greenwood’s tales of Deaconess Theodora Braithwaite. Better declare an interest here. Many years ago D. M. Greenwood was known as Miss Greenwood, a classics teacher of terrifying erudition and eccentricity.

While the slight left-leaning is a little unexpected, the clear and beautiful writing and the sharpness with which the shortcomings of the present-day Church of England are dissected are entirely in character with the woman who used a similar scalpel on Tacitus and his characters.

Subsequently Miss Greenwood went back to university to study theology, became what she calls an ecclesiastical civil servant and started writing detective stories. Presumably working for the church at a relatively low level makes it easy to imagine all sorts of nefarious dealings up to and including murder.

Deaconess Braithwaite, a scion of a distinguished Anglican family, a student of classics who turned to theology and who refuses to be priested because she feels the Anglican Church should not break away from all the other ones within Christianity (presumably she means Roman Catholic and the various Orthodox ones as many of the Nonconformist denominations have had women ministers for some time) is an engaging character. So are many of the others who appear in the various novels though, sadly, few more than once. The intrigues and shabbiness of the Church hierarchy are brilliantly described and there are sharp portraits of various people who are attracted to the institution for various reasons.

In addition, Theodora Braithwaite is writing a biography of an eminent (fictitious but so realistic) Victorian Tractarian, Thomas Henry Newcome, who is brought into sharp focus, together with his formidable wife in the book Tory Historian has just finished reading, “Heavenly Vices”.

In other words, this is an entirely admirable series and strongly recommended to all readers. There is just one problem: the plots are terrible. Even Philip Grosset, onlie begetter of the Clerical Detectives site, has to admit this, though he, too, lists Theodora Braithwaite as one of his favourite detectives.

“Heavenly Vices” just about works if one can accept the dubious notion that people will murder in order to preserve the Church of England from yet another highly unpalatable scandal.

However, Tory Historian finds it extremely unlikely that a woman like Deaconess Braithwaite would think in meters rather than feet and yards. Was it D. M. Greenwood herself or some officious editor who described the appearance of a cottage Theodora Braithwaite is approaching:

The Saplings was a solid red brick villa with mock Tudor beams. The front garden, no more than three metres from gate to front door, was laid out with miniature box hedges interspersed with fine gravel.
Would Deaconess Braithwaite even know how long three metres were?

On the other hand, there is a wonderful conversation between the Kenyan priest Isaiah Ngaio, to whom Theodora is unfailingly though somewhat condescendingly (even though she would call it understandingly) gracious, and the spoilt, hysterical and self-obsessed son of the late Warden of Gracemount Theological College. Needless to say, the Warden’s death is not what it seems:

Isaiah is pushed into asking the detestable Crispin:
“Whom do you hate?”

“Myself, my father.”

“Count your blessings and act out of them.”

“What blessings would those be then?”

Isaiah looked down at this flimsy youth and thought of his own country: “You ate well last night. You can read and write. You can journey from one end of this country to the other without men with Kalashnikovs demanding your deference. You have no right to your discontent, no right to your hatred. Your only proper emotion is gratitude.”

“You don’t understand.”

“There is One who does. Seek His path and healing will surely follow.”

But Crispin had been raised by and among people who considered the development of self in all its florescent glory was the true end of man.
That passage with the undeniable truth at the heart of it ought to encourage more people to read about Deaconess Theodora Braithwaite.

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