Caroline: A golden age murder mystery should work on two levels. There’s the day to day world that the characters inhabit, in which they eat meals, share gossip and, occasionally, kill each other. Lying behind that is a more elemental realm, in which abstract concepts like justice, order, fairness, guilt and revenge find expression. The two are commonly brought together for the reader when the detective investigates possible motives for the crime at hand. This is where it becomes clear that apparently minor incidents such as a missed delivery or a dropped pin are actually indications of the presence of these vast yet invisible forces.
Introducing a character who routinely spends their time thinking about these bigger concerns is a clever way of adding depth to a story. Of course, popping a deep-thinking philosopher into a classic English country house whodunnit might seem a bit forced, but a detective or psychiatrist with a feel for the infinite and horrifying variety of human nature can do the trick. Plus, luckily, there is a handy type of character who blends right in to the golden age setting while also providing that link to the more conceptual level of a detective story.
Which is why today, we’re trying to answer a very important question. Why are classic murder mysteries so full of vicars?
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Golden age detective fiction is full of religious figures of varying kinds, most of them Christian, and a variety of terminology gets bandied about. Some might be referred to as Vicar, some as “Father”, others as “Reverend”, “Rector”, “Parson”, “Padre” and so on. At times we also trip over churchwardens, curates and chaplains too. As I’ve discovered, when you start paying attention to them, you really do notice how many of these figures there are.
Before we get too deeply into this subject, I do think it’s worth being clear about what exactly a vicar is. I’ll also issue a general caveat that I’m not an expert on religion in general or church hierarchy in particular, so do bear that in mind.
Golden age detective fiction was largely, although not exclusively by any means, written in Britain by British writers for whom Christianity was their main experience of religion. In this context, then, a vicar is an ordained minister of the Church of England who is assigned a particular parish. A parish is a small geographical area usually centred around a community with a church. Within this region, the vicar is responsible for nurturing the relationship between parishioners and the church, by leading services, organising events, and aiding those in difficulty either spiritual or physical.
The Church of England, it is worth mentioning too, is England’s established church, meaning that its head is the monarch and its measures must be approved in Parliament. Many other forms of religion in general and Christianity in particular do exist in the UK, of course, and they have their own leaders and structures, but they don’t have this same status as part of the default establishment.
It’s probably also worth saying that during the golden age period, ie between the first and second world wars, the Church of England did comprise a lot of people’s contact with religion. It’s not that easy to give definitive figures for this, as there wasn’t a question about religious affiliation on the 1921 census and thus data is scarce, but academics estimate that at least 60 per cent of the adult population of the United Kingdom considered the Church of England to be their spiritual home.
A vicar in a golden age detective novel thus occupies a position of authority at the heart of a community. Only men can be ordained in the Church of England at this time and they are permitted to marry, so the vicar’s wife is also a common character. They likely live in a vicarage or rectory, a house close to the church that is assigned with the job. Together, this couple straddle the divide between spiritual and temporal realms, providing pastoral care in both — a vicar might provide counsel to someone in mental distress or lead a prayer meeting while his wife takes food parcels to the needy of the parish and organises a village fete.
The vicar is also a figure who can cross class boundaries to an extent. Although not necessarily wealthy or from an aristocratic background, becoming ordained required a level of advanced education that opened doors to more elite social circles. A vicar will thus be treated as part of the “county set” or be a regular invitee to the local squire’s manor because of what they represent, even if unordained they would not merit such treatment.
This social flexibility is part of what makes the vicar such a staple character in classic murder mysteries. Golden age detective fiction is, for better or worse, largely focused on middle and upper class characters, and the vicar is able to move between different social groupings with ease. They are included in the squire’s country house party, but also present at the youth club’s annual outing.
The vicar is also supposed to the moral heart of a community, to represent the abstract notions of virtue, order and justice on which detective fiction ultimately focuses. And there are plenty of virtuous vicars in golden age detective fiction, who take their calling seriously and embody the best of their kind. The Reverend Theodore Venables, rector of Fenchurch St Paul from Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1934 novel The Nine Tailors is a good example. When a flood threatens his parish, he springs into action instantly, saying:
“My poor parishioners… You know what to do. Documents and valuables in the tower, personal belongings in the nave. Animals in the churchyard. Cats, rabbits and guinea-pigs in baskets, please… Get the children together and march them down in an orderly way… Mrs. Venables is arranging it all. Men’s sleeping-quarters on the cantoris side, women and children on the decani side. And we can put the sick and aged people in the Rectory in greater comfort, if all goes well.” He makes all the resources of his church and home available to his community to protect them from the physical threat of the floodwaters, and then once the disaster sets in, he also uses the familiar rhythms of prayer and hymn to help keep fear at bay. He’s an archetype, more than a character, used to make a stark contrast with the less than virtuous activity that also occurs within his parish and church in this story.
If Rector Venables is at one end of the spectrum of vicarly virtue, then a novel like P.D. James’ Death in Holy Orders hints at the alternative. Although not published during the golden age, James’s 2001 whodunnit set in an Anglican theological college is heavily steeped in this same tradition. The suspicion of murder lies upon several ordained inhabitants of this supposedly holy institution, and her detective must work out who has subverted their moral and religious role to the extent of committing this grave sin.
Between these two extremes lie most of the vicars that we encounter in detective fiction. They dodder, they equivocate, they retire to the study to write a sermon while their wives entertain the local spinsters to tea. They are fallible humans, albeit humans who are trying to live up to an unobtainable ideal of virtue. The Reverend Leonard Clement, the vicar of St Mary Mead and narrator of the first Miss Marple novel, 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage, is a good example of just such a flawed yet engaging vicar. He doesn’t live up to every single moral ideal, but his mere presence allows his creator, Agatha Christie, to introduce this dimension into the story.
The vicar as a character can transition from just witness or suspect into something more proactive. Their mandate to provide spiritual guidance can be useful to the author here, since it allows them to take a more active role in propelling the plot forward. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1927 novel Unnatural Death, a vicar by the name of Mr Tredgold provides valuable counsel to the detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, as he grapples with the moral dimension of the case and tries to decide whether he ought to take action to prevent hypothetical future murders. Mr Tredgold’s suggestion is generic but effective. “My advice to you is to do what you think is right, according to the laws which we have been brought up to respect,” he says. “Leave the consequences to God. And try to think charitably, even of wicked people.”
This advice propels Lord Peter on to a series of events that ultimately result in the book’s dramatic conclusion. Mr Tredgold also has an impact on the case at one remove. One of Lord Peter’s spinster agents, Miss Climpson, has a breakthrough when she realises that an important revelation has been made during a religious confession. Although not present for the actual conversation between sinner and vicar, even knowing that it has taken place gives her the next link in the chain that she needs.
The vicar’s role as confessor has inspired some writers to give him an entirely active role in a murder mystery plot. James Runcie’s Grantchester novels are set in the 1950s and written within the last decade but clearly inspired by the rules and atmosphere of the golden age of detective fiction. In these stories his hero is Sidney Chambers, a vicar to whom people bring problems that fall into the “grey area” between everyday occurrence and police matter. Chambers is uncomfortable with his role as a detective and repeatedly questions the compatibility of it with his spiritual and pastoral work, but he clearly develops a taste for solving cases.
His role as a clergyman makes people comfortable confiding in him, and he can also pass unnoticed in environments where a more official presence would immediately be remarked upon. Like the elderly village spinster, a vicar is an unlikely practitioner of deductive reasoning, and thus all the more effective at solving crimes. James Runcie’s father, by the way, was Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991 — that’s the most senior position in the Church of England. James has first hand knowledge of the suitability of a clergyman detective, perhaps.
After the break: the hammer of God.
The greatest clerical detective of them all is not actually a vicar — he is a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Father Brown, created by the prolific writer and critic G.K. Chesterton. Father Brown was born, it is said, of necessity. According to fellow writer Ronald Knox, Chesterton found himself at a loose end one day with no projects on hand, and so wandered into the office of their mutual literary agent to ask whether there were any publishers “wanting anything done”. The reply came that there were no requests for Chesterton’s usual kind of work, but that there was always demand from newspapers for detective fiction. Supposedly Chesterton then sat down in the foyer right then and there and wrote the first Father Brown story, The Blue Cross, which was then published in the Saturday Evening Post in July 1910.
In the same way that all of the amateur detectives who have followed Sherlock Holmes carry something of the great Baker Street sleuth about them, such is the stature of Father Brown that it isn’t possible to write a clerical detective without feeling his shadow fall across the page. Chesterton based Father Brown on a real priest, a Monsignor John O’Connor, who was instrumental in Chesterton’s own conversion from Anglican to Roman Catholic in 1922.
Like O’Connor, Father Brown is an unassuming figure who moves through the world mostly unnoticed — according to Knox “it is because he drops his parcels and cannot roll his umbrella, because he blinks at us and has fits of absent-mindedness, that Father Brown is such a good publisher’s detective. He is a Daniel come to judgment.” O’Connor’s clumsiness and owlish expressions apparently encouraged people to overlook and underestimate him; Father Brown has the same quality. And this effect was enhanced by the fact that in the early 20th century, Catholic priests in England had no official status and lacked the establishment standing enjoyed by their Anglican counterparts.
Father Brown is a kind of literary trick, too. Both the characters he encounters and his readers fall into the trap of assuming that his uncanny deductive abilities stem from his vocation — that because he has a close relationship with God, he receives insight into truth from above. In fact, there is nothing supernatural or spiritual about Father Brown’s investigative methods. He is an expert in nothing except compassion for his fellow human beings. Like plenty of other sleuths before and after, he merely observes all the evidence, asks pertinent questions, and then uses reason and logic to work out what really happened. A decade before Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells debuted on the page, Father Brown is doing precisely the same thing. Chesterton seems to be making a point about the place of faith in modern life: allow it to guide your values, he is saying, but ignore the teachings of science and reason at your peril.
Father Brown is a solitary figure, but that isn’t the only way in which a detective story based around a vicar or priest can function by any means. A religious community can provide a perfect closed circle for a classic whodunnit, as ably demonstrated by Ellis Peters in the Cadfael novels, which are set in a Benedictine abbey in the 12th century. Both the walls of the abbey and the tightly regimented routine of the monks provide a structure around which Peters builds her plots, with her detective able to rule suspects in or out based on whether they were in residence at the time or if they turned up to compline.
Other kinds of religious community have a similarly inspirational effect on detective novelists, it would seem — Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun and Gladys Mitchell’s St Peter’s Finger take place in convent schools, as already mentioned PD James’ Death in Holy Orders is set in a theological college, Michael Gilbert’s Close Quarters and The Black Seraphim occurs amongst the residents of a cathedral close, as does Edmund Crispin’s Holy Disorders. And I’m sure there are plenty more examples that I’ve not mentioned.
This enthusiastic take up of religious character and settings among practitioners of the golden age style hints at a more substantial connection than just the constant search for a new whodunnit gimmick. Is there perhaps something about the murder mystery that suits the introduction of themes that also dominate religious life?
The poet W.H. Auden thought so. In his 1948 essay “The Guilty Vicarage”, the poet investigated his own preference for detective novels over thrillers and wondered what it was about the moral framework of a whodunnit that he, and other fans, found so appealing. The satisfaction, he concluded, derives from being able to observe evil without being personally affected by it. Auden argued that:
“The magic formula is an innocence which is discovered to contain guilt; then a suspicion of being the guilty one; and finally a real innocence from which the guilty other has been expelled, a cure effected, not by me or my neighbours, but by the miraculous intervention of a genius from outside who removes guilt by giving knowledge of guilt… The fantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence.”
The pleasure is not to be found in the cosy feeling of “rather them than me”, Auden claimed — although this might be why people like to read thrillers, he can’t be sure. The detective story keeps attracting us because it offers a glimpse of life’s absolutes: guilt, innocence and a higher power who can transform one into the other.
Auden’s way of breaking down the appeal of detective fiction offers an explanation for something else that I’ve observed during my time reading and researching the golden age. A number of the period’s most prominent practitioners were heavily involved in religious life, and not just in the sense that many people were active churchgoers in the 1930s. Ronald Knox, originator of the famous ten “rules” of detective fiction was a Church of England vicar who converted to Catholicism in 1917. GK Chesterton, the first president of the Detection Club, was another convert who authored religious works that the likes of C. S. Lewis cited as influential upon their own embrace of Christianity.
Agatha Christie was a devout churchgoer whose support for the continued practice of the Tridentine Mass in England and Wales supposedly helped to persuade Pope Paul VI to alter canon law in its favour (I recommend googling the “Agatha Christie indult” if you’d like to know more about this). Dorothy L. Sayers, co-founder of the Detection Club and high profile champion of the form, ceased writing detective fiction in the late 1930s in order to devote her time to writing works with religious themes for the stage and for broadcast.
In her final detective novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, Sayers even gently poked fun at the omnipresence of vicars in her genre. “Nothing could be more obvious,” Harriet Vane declares at one point in the story, proposing a silly solution to the crime at hand. “They have one of those squalid senile rows — and the vicar ends up with a brain-storm and imagines he’s the hammer of God.” It’s funny because it’s an absurd suggestion — the vicar in question, Mr Goodacre — is a gentle old soul far more interested in cricket and the date of the next choir practice to be considered a serious suspect for a brutal crime.
Of course, not ever major golden age author was overtly or even covertly religious. An interest in Christianity is not a prerequisite to being an accomplished crime writer by any means — plenty of outstanding whodunnits have been written by and about people of all faiths and none. But it does seem like this moment in the early 20th century when the puzzle-based whodunnit was riding so high in popular culture coincided with the popularity of a particular kind of public intellectual — one who was curious about matters of faith amid everything else.
Which brings us back to our original question. Why are classic murder mysteries so full of vicars? Partly because they belonged to the reassuringly unchanging world in which these murders took place, but also because they form a point of connection with larger, more philosophical questions that are difficult to introduce organically into popular fiction. Who else could Peter Wimsey go to for advice about morality than a handy vicar?
In a way, the vicar is the clue to what detective fiction is really about. All of what Raymond Chandler once called “the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window” is merely window dressing.
Murder is a serious business for the soul, and we would do well to remember that.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton.
You can find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/clericalcrimes. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.