I teach an undergraduate course on gender, race and class in British murder mysteries and TV crime dramas. The students and I use murder mysteries as a jumping off point to talk about gender violence, prison abolition, race and policing, gun control and other social justice topics.
As we’re all hunkered down to help “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus pandemic, I thought I’d draw on my course for some suggestions to help you pass the time.
The clergy mystery is one of the subgenres of murder mystery and crime drama that we explore in this course. Certainly, religion is a very compatible partner for murder mystery because both delve into the mystery of human nature and the battle between good and evil.
Members of the clergy are usually protagonists in these mysteries, though occasionally they can be villains as well. And, as we know, clergy are never just one thing. Even the best of them may have a secret past that they are escaping, or they mail fail to act as we’d hope they would.
Clergy mysteries are usually set in villages. They don’t often examine larger structural issues of difference and power, but they do explore the workings of good and evil in the world, even the world of an English village, where violence and evil live side by side with goodness and mercy.
Clergypersons make intriguing sleuths because of their peculiar access to the intimacies of people’s lives and the social world that enables them to move across social boundaries.
Using what they know about human frailty, the knowable and unknowable, hope, good and evil, the clergy sleuth solves the mystery, but the larger and more vexing questions of the human condition remain for us to ponder as readers and viewers.
So, while we’re physically distancing and staying home, here are a few recommendations to pass the time and explore the battle between good and evil in a quaint English village. This is hardly an exhaustive list, and I’m sure many of you will have additional recommendations. You can simply google a show or use the JustWatch app to find most of these recommendations on a streaming service.
Books and shows with clergy as central characters
Father Brown. Father Brown made his first appearance in 1911 in G.K. Chesterton’s collection, The Innocence of Father Brown. While the parish priest doesn’t seem a likely sleuth, his understandings of human nature and the possibilities of evil give him keen insight into the underbelly of village life.
In her introduction to the collection, Father Brown: The Essential Tales, P.D. James writes:
“We read the Father Brown stories for a variety pleasures, including their ingenuity, their wit and intelligence, and for the brilliance of the writing. But they provide more. Chesterton was concerned with the greatest of all problems, the vagaries of the human heart.”
The BBC created a series in 2013 loosely based on Chesterton’s stories. These stories are set in the mid-1950s in the fictional Cotswolds village of Kembleford. The BBC has already commissioned a 9th season for 2021.
Grantchester. Grantchester is set in Cambridgeshire in the 1950s. The ITV series, which first aired in 2014, is based on the stories of James Runcie whose father, Robert Runcie, was the archbishop of Canterbury.
The first three seasons follow sleuthing Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers who teams up with Inspector Geordie Keating to solve murders in the bucolic village of Grantchester. In the fourth season, Chambers leaves after two episodes and is replaced by the new vicar, Reverend Will Davenport, who brings his own troubled past to the Church of St. Andrew and St. Mary.
Cadfael. This ITV series, which ran from 1994-1998, is based on a series of historical murder mysteries written by Edith Pargeter under the pen name Ellis Peters. Brother Cadfael is a Welsh Benedictine monk who lives in the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury in the early 12th century during the conflict between King Stephen and Empress Maud over the throne of England. The first book in The Cadfael Chronicles is A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977).
An accomplished herablist, Brother Cadfael often turns to sleuthing to solve crimes in his community. Cadfael entered the abbey late in life, and his experience in the world serves him well when troubles come to the abbey.
Books and shows with clergy in supporting roles
Broadchurch. This series aired on ITV from 2013-2017. Broadchurch is a fictional seaside town in Dorset. The show begins with the death of an 11-year old boy and focuses on the efforts of DI Alec Hardy and DS Ellie Miller to find the killer. The local vicar is Reverend Paul Coates who becomes a suspect for a while but anchors the show’s grappling with powerful religious questions.
In Broadchurch we see a community of complex people who are not all good or bad but who hide a number of dark secrets.
Midsomer Murders. Known for its high body count, this series has been airing on ITV since 1997. The show is based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby series. Set in the fictional villages of Midsomer County, it follows DCI Tom Barnaby for 13 seasons and then since 2011 his cousin, DCI John Barnaby.
While clergy show up in episodes here and there, “Country Matters,” Season 9, Episode 6 (2006), features Reverend Susan Wicking. She calls herself the “Rev Suze” and wears T-shirts with slogans like “Jogging for Jesus.” Like many of the British clergy characters, she has a hidden past that will be revealed.
Season 5, Episode 4 (2002), “Ring Out Your Dead,” offers classic British crime drama when someone starts killing off the Midsomer Wellow parish church bell-ringers the week before the big bell-ringing competition. Before he can crack the case, DCI Barnaby has to understand the 1840 killing of the church’s vicar who was murdered and thrown down a well by the church bell-ringers.
This episode is sure to be a hit with the church handbell choir.
Agatha Raisin. Based on M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin books, this series first aired on Sky 1 in 2014 with “Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death.” Raisin was a high-powered PR agent in London who gave up city life for early retirement in the Cotswolds in the fictional village of Carsely, where she eventually sets up her own detective agency. In the TV series, Sarah Bloxby is the local vicar’s wife and a good friend who occasionally helps Agatha solve the crime.
Bell-ringers play a role again in Season 1, Episode 2, “Hell’s Bells.” In Season 2, Episode 3, Sarah is arrested on suspicion of murdering the new handsome and popular curate. The book on which the episode is based is Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Curious Curate for those more inclined to read than watch.
The Murder at the Vicarage. Miss Marple, Season 2. What list of British murder mysteries would be complete without an Agatha Christie story?
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) was the first novel to introduced readers to Miss Jane Marple. The story centers on St. Mary Mead’s much disliked Colonel Protheroe whom everyone, including the vicar, wishes were dead. Then he is shot in the vicar’s study, and a number of village folk begin to confess to the murder. Miss Marple uses her powers of observation, honed by life in an English village, to solve the crime.
Joan Hickson plays Miss Marple in the 1986 TV version of the story. Geraldine McEwan reprises the role in the 2004 version.
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers. In Sayers’ ninth novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, the amateur sleuth meets the local rector when he’s stranded in a New Year’s Eve snowstorm in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. A few months later, the rector calls Wimsey to investigate the death of a man secretly buried in the churchyard.
BBC adapted the story for TV in 1974. Like Sayers’ other writings, The Nine Tailors explores themes of morality, righteousness and integrity.
Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James. This is the 11th novel in James’ Adam Dalgliesh series. A student at a small theological college is murdered, and Commander Dalgliesh investigates. As the son of a parson, Dalgliesh is the perfect detective for the setting, but soon after his arrival an ambitious archdeacon is beaten to death on the church grounds. Themes of faith, love, vengeance and good and evil abound.
The book was turned into a TV mini-series in 2003, but I couldn’t find it streaming anywhere.
Three bonus recommendations
The Vicar of Dibley. This isn’t a crime drama, but a British sitcom that ran on BBC One from 1994-1998. It starred Dawn French as a vicar assigned to the fictional Oxfordshire village of Dibley shortly after the Church of England began to ordain women in 1992.
The story begins when the village’s ancient vicar dies, and the Reverend Geraldine Granger arrives to lead the staid congregation.
The Clare Fergusson series by Julia Spencer-Fleming. While it isn’t British, this series is definitely worth a read. It’s American, and its amateur sleuth is Clare Fergusson, the priest at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Miller’s Kill, New York. (She’s also an ex-Army helicopter pilot.)
The series begins with In the Bleak Midwinter when an infant is left at the church door. The book won a Macavity Award, an Agatha Award, an Anthony Award and a Dilys Award.
Father Dowling Mysteries. I would also recommend this American series, but I can’t find it streaming anywhere. The show, which ran from 1989-1991, follows a Chicago priest and a streetwise nun who solve mysteries in the parish. The series is based on characters from Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling books.
While we’re physically distancing, reading murder mysteries and watching crime dramas can be a surprisingly productive way of thinking about the human condition. These fictional accounts offer us a window into society and into our own psyches. They invite us to think about the nature of good and evil, the complexity of human beings and possibilities for justice.
More than simply being an entertaining way to pass the time, they can help us ponder more deeply our own fears, hopes, vulnerabilities and values.
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