Angela Tilby: Crime fiction and religion do not get on

13 September 2019

AS USUAL, my holiday reading involved murder and violence. I had a big Elizabeth George mystery to wade through (The Punishment She Deserves, 2018, featuring the aristocratic Inspector Peter Linley and his sidekick Sergeant Barbara Havers). An old Donna Leon story The Death of Faith reintroduced me to the Venetian police Commissario Guido Brunetti, who, by page 40, was scoffing a snack of prosciutto wrapped round a breadstick on his way home for an exquisite lunch cooked by his wife, Paula. I noticed more than ever this year how murder and recipes go together in contemporary crime fiction.

But so does an antipathy towards the Church. Guido and Paula both see priests and believers as knaves and fools. My current fave-rave crime writer is Louise Penny — I had three of hers. I love the cast of hippy misfits who inhabit her village of Three Pines in Canada along with her perfect cop, Armand Gamache of the Quebec Sureté.

Three Pines is a refuge whose calm is never quite destroyed by episodes of gun-running, drug trafficking, and brutal murder. There is always time for homemade soup and a perfect baguette. But the Church is, at best, marginal and, at worst, evil.

It was not always so. Think of Chesterton’s Father Brown, Dorothy L. Sayers, and P. D. James. Now, though, religion is merely part of a gothic-horror backdrop for popular crime. Accuracy counts for nothing. Just as no TV murder seems complete without a church interior lit
by aggressively blazing candles, so priests, religious, and lay believers are accompanying ghouls.

Even skilled writers seem slapdash when it comes to church life. Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery (2012) is set in a remote monastery where monks process from their cells singing plainchant, in harmony (?). They gather at an altar that functions as a platform for the abbot to stand on.

There are heavy, doom-laden references to the “Dies Irae” using the devotional paraphrase “Day of wrath and day of mourning”. This is presented as an accurate translation of Dies irae, dies illa. The mistake is tiny, but it matters, and, in terms of plot, actually misleads. Elizabeth George writes of a deacon — she thinks this is a would-be priest who has failed his exams — who is murdered in a police station. The weapon is a stole. Lynley recognises the colour of the stole and draws conclusions from this, but these are based on a misunderstanding of the significance of the colour.

Many crimes writers lavishly acknowledge those who help them research important things such as guns, policing policy, and the law. Ignorance of the Church is OK, I suppose, because the Church these days is on the dark side. But, if you change your mind, Louise Penny, Elizabeth George, I am available!

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