Grave concerns: the last temptation of crime novelists

Preachers, guilt, biblical references: what is it about religious imagery that crimewriters just can’t resist?

Evil intent: a common thread in crimewriting is the question, ‘What makes a person want to commit murder?’. Photograph: Istockphoto

Evil intent: a common thread in crimewriting is the question, ‘What makes a person want to commit murder?’. Photograph: Istockphoto

Sat, Apr 6, 2013, 07:00

If you’re a regular consumer of crime fiction you can’t help but notice that among the murders, mysteries and mayhem lurks a small but significant helping of good old-fashioned religion. Plots bristle with biblical allusions. Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus is riven by Calvinist guilt. Clerics of one cut or another have always dabbled in detection, from GK Chesterton’s amiable Fr Brown to William Broderick’s astute Br Anselm. Even our own Benjamin Black is at it: his latest novel, due out in June, is called Holy Orders .

One reason for the plethora of religious paraphernalia is that crime fiction and religion both deal in the business of death. Even in our increasingly nonchurchgoing society, death has a way of forcing us into pews and graveyards. And those same churches, crosses and headstones make for striking cover images, whether in misty black and white such as on Phil Rickman’s The Secrets of Pain or on James Lee Burke’s Feast Day of Fools , all brooding browns and golds with a trio of crosses in silhouette.

You might expect a bit of Bible-bashing from English-language writers who have been raised with the sonorous Shakespearean rhythms of the King James translation. Rickman’s central character, Merrily Watkins, is an exorcist – or “deliverance consultant”, as the Church of England prefers to say – so the fact that his chapters have titles such as “Wet Cassock”, “Old Evil” and “Towards the Flames” makes perfect narrative sense.

And because crimewriting likes to establish a strong sense of place, it’s no surprise to find the work of American writers such as Burke steeped in blood, thunder and seriously unhinged preachermen. They are, after all, set in the sweat-drenched Bible Belt states of Louisiana and Missouri. Feast Day of Fools doesn’t just contain a Bible reference on every page: its doomy intensity ensures that the text itself reads like a latter-day book of Genesis. “The sky black as soot, the southern horizon pulsing with electricity that resembled gold wires . . .”

But what’s the excuse for the supposedly cool Scandinavians? Scratch beneath the secular surface of Nordic noir, and you’ll find religion growing happily in the undergrowth. In Arnaldur Indridason’s Jar City , a gritty Darwinian tale about genetics and inheritance set in the suburbs of Reykjavik, a man is found murdered in his apartment. Beside the body is a cryptic three-word message that, eventually, leads to a lonely grave.

The words ring a bell with the investigating detective, Erlendur. “He walked among the bookshelves, running his eyes over the spines of the books until he found the Bible. Erlendur knew the Bible well. He opened it at the Psalms and found No 64. He found the line that was inscribed on the headstone. ‘Preserve my life from fear of the enemy . . .’ ”.

It takes a brave author to invoke the Book of Psalms, whose evocative poetry has echoed across our cultural landscape since the first millennium BC, if not earlier. But crime writers reach for religion for all sorts of reasons, says the tartan noir novelist Gordon Ferris, whose third Douglas Brodie book, Pilgrim Soul , is coming out next month. “The books are set in postwar Glasgow,” he says. “Brodie himself is an ex-soldier, as most men were around that era. He’s also ex-police; and he’s working as a reporter for a mythical newspaper called the Glasgow Gazette .”

Ferris’s book Bitter Water looked at sectarian conflict among Scotland’s Protestant and Catholic communities. Pilgrim Soul finds Brodie helping the Jewish community in Glasgow to solve a series of burglaries; when the burglaries turn into murders, Brodie realises that something much nastier is going on. “Glasgow at the time had a very big Jewish community,” says Ferris. “There were about 12,000 to 14,000 people, mainly in the Gorbals, which was very much a slum or refugee centre for all sorts of refugees, including the Irish, people from the Highland clearances and many East Europeans who were fleeing pogroms. And of course there were Nazis as well.”

The story forces Brodie to confront the haunting scenes he encountered in concentration camps at the end of the war. “The title is really a way of saying Brodie is on a personal quest to find redemption and free himself from the demons of the past,” says Ferris. As it happens, he adds mischievously, although the word “pilgrim” may have a religious ring, the phrase “pilgrim soul” is actually taken from the Yeats poem When You Are Old .

The notion of crime and punishment is of major interest to the writer William Brodrick, whose Br Anselm novels are low in body count but high in moral conundrums. A former Augustinian friar who left the order to become a practising barrister, Brodrick is mainly a poacher- turned-gamekeeper.

Terrible crimes
“One of the things that is a bit of a thread in all my books is this whole question of whether evil is a choice; whether people actually choose to do it, or whether it’s a wound,” says Brodrick. “It sounds philosophical. But I think everybody asks that question when they put the news on, and hear some horrendous report about a terrible crime. One of the questions that immediately springs to mind is, ‘How on earth could someone do that?’ “

Brodrick’s most recent Br Anselm book, The Day of the Lie , has just come out in paperback. Much of the story takes place in Poland during the Cold War, and it has recently won a prize in Poland for its measured examination of a very delicate period in recent Polish history. The author sees the temptation to seek help from a higher judge, ie God, as a totally natural one, given the blatant inadequacies of our historical justice system.

“In certain situations, judicial structures can’t quite meet the enormity of the problem so the urge for something beyond ourselves that could heal, or liberate, or bring justice where justice has been denied, is a very, very powerful human need,” he says. “The grey area where justice and mercy collide is where all my novels are situated.” And if religion has to be included in the mix, no problem. “Crime fiction is an incredibly wide category, and it’s well poised to deal with the large questions of life. Whether evil is something we try and understand, or whether we lock it away as some sort of aberration that we’d rather not look at, I think is a really engaging issue for crime fiction, and I’m glad to be involved in it.”

Pilgrim Soul , by Gordon Ferris, is published by Corvus this month .
The Day of the Lie , by William Broderick, is published by Abacus.