Crime and The Church: What’s the Connection?

Father Brown

Throughout the history of Crime Fiction there has always been an ecclesiastical connection. From Chesterton’s Father Brown through to James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers, there are plenty of vicars solving mysteries, as well as the numerous religious characters across the genre (Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime, was notably fond of vicars) the Crime Fiction genre has always strongly involved religion.

Recently, the conspiring and slightly Machiavellian face of organized religion reared its head in a number of ways, as actor Elizabeth Moss defended Scientology, an oppressive and dubious, almost cultish modern phenomenon, despite her recent portrayal of life under a society in the grip of a similar regime in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Additionally, the spate of devastating terror attacks around the world, which have led to an increase in Islamophobia and a questioning of the role religion has to play in the collective conscience, have all offered an interesting perspective from which modern writers can examine the world of crime.

All of this got me thinking about the creepy and intrusive nature of some religions and how this makes it a great benchmark for criminal activities and investigations. The freedom and trust offered to vicars and pastors is what makes them such great detective characters, and their close capacity to death makes them ideally suited for even gruesome manhunts.

In classic Crime Fiction, vicars are as often shown as suspects as they are detectives, as the freedom these characters have to move around and their natural secrecy that is an inherent part of their job makes them perfect suspects. Older, more traditional societies, particularly in England, often gave great credence to vicars, who often formed the heart of communities, often small, rural ones, making them the ideal characters for Golden Age novels, which often used isolated communities to form the basis of locked room style plots. The confined nature of the setting allowed for a limited number of characters to be used, and writers therefore often utilised vicars or priests as plot devices, to provide exposition through confessional dialogue inspired by their position or to add tension to the narrative thanks to their secretive dispositions, which arise from the nature of the church and its practices, such as the sanctity of the confessional.

The concept of religion is also a specter in many thrillers, featuring heavily in a lot of novels, particularly more modern texts, such as the work of writers such as Moshin Hamid, Tayeb Salih and Henning Mankell. The idea of fundamentalism is key to many of these texts, such as in Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, in which the issue of modern American society fuelling terrorism is explored, as well as in Mankell’s Before the Frost, in which Christian extremism is shown as a motive for crime. In each novel the reader is shown the motives for extremism as well as the aftermath, utilizing religion as an interesting insight into the human condition.

In conclusion, religion will always play a key role in Crime Fiction as a genre, and the ever changing landscape of the world’s view on religious bodies and the people who operate them will offer a number of exciting future possibilities for readers and authors alike.

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