THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck
WILLIAM DAVID SPENCER – Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel. UMI Research Press, hardcover, 1989, 344 pp., $49.95. Southern Illinois Press, softcover, 1992.
Perhaps I should start with a disclaimer: my theology, such as it is — or, sadly more accurately, was — was gained from nuns at a parochial school. Now that I can look back on it with detachment, they were dear ladies but woefully inadequate in their understanding of religion. Any questions not covered in the catechism were met with “Never mind” or disappointed looks or mitigated horror.
Thus, my understanding of Spencer’s chapter on “Modus Operandi: Mysterium into Mystery” is at best suspect, at worst completely befuddled. But I didn’t get the book so that I could learn theology; I got it to read about clerical detectives and their theology.
Spencer says — and I have no disagreement with him — that the clerical crime novel may be divided into three classifications. The most general, he says, is any tale that involves the clergy and crime. This type of novel involves “saintly side-kicks” — “as in Jack Webb’s or Thurmin [sic] Warriner’s tales or in a lesser sense in Christopher Leach’s Blood Games or Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s Where the Dark Streets Go.”
The second division is the novel in which a crime is committed by a cleric. Spencer provides several examples, though not the most unusual one, which I can’t name since to do so would be to give away whodunit.
Finally, and the focus of this book, are the mysteries solved by the cleric. Part One of Spencer’s treatise is “Rabbis and Robbers,” dealing with two tales from the Apocrypha and with the novels of Harry Kemelman. Although Spencer lists Joseph Telushkin in his “Graph of the Clerical Crime Novel in English,” Rabbi David Winter is not dealt with in this study.
Part Two is “Priests and Psychopaths,” the Roman Catholic clergy, both ordained and nonordained — in the latter case the various nuns and brothers.
Part Three is “Ministers and Murders” — yes, as you may have gathered, Spencer does have a thing for alliteration, even when it can be somewhat misleading- representing the various Protestant clergy.
How well does Spencer sum up the clergy characters and their theology? Quite well, I believe, in those cases in which I have read at least one of the books by an author. The only authors I haven’t read are Barbara Ninde Byfield, whom I hope to get around to shortly, and James L. Johnson, who wrote the Code Name Sebastian Series, a series, after reading Spencer’s descriptions of the novels, I feel I can skip without any loss. (Oh, all right, I merely started The Name of the Rose. Some people, I am informed, have read, enjoyed, and understood it, though I am dubious whether any one person did all three.)
Keep in mind, of course, that Spencer is not rating the clergy characters as detectives or the novels as detective tales; he is dealing with the books as to how they reflect the characters’ theology or, in one case, the near absence of it.
Errors? If you get as upset as I do over the misuse of “flaunt” for “flout,” you’d join me in considering that a mistake. Otherwise, except for his curious notion that Eco’s William of Baskerville chewed tobacco in fourteenth-century Europe, Spencer is, as far as I could tell, quite accurate in depicting plot and character.
Oversights? The only clergy detective not dealt with that I know of is the Reverend Peter Eversleigh, sometimes called the Padre, featured in several of Richard Goyne’s novels. This Protestant clergyman detective seems to have been overlooked by all who have published lists of religious sleuths. Since in the one novel I have read in which the Padre appears there is nothing about theology, perhaps no great loss has been suffered from lack of knowledge about him. The Lipstick Clue (Paul, 1954) is, however, a rather decent novel of detection.
Is Mysterium and Mysteries a fair value at $49.95? I paid that price, and I feel it was worth it. After all, there is a fair amount of information about clerical detectives as detectives but very little about their theology. Dedicated fans of the Divine Mystery, or Holy Terror, or the clerical crime novel, or whatever you want to call it, probably should own this study. Others should suggest that their public library acquire it.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.