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When Clergymen Turn to (Writing About) Crime

These classic crime writers were also people of the cloth.

photo of a priest or clergyman pulling a knife from out of a red book
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Murder may seem an unsuitable topic of interest for your average priest, but plenty of clerics over the years have turned their hands to fictional killings. Let's look at a few clergymen who were also crime writers.

Reverend Victor Whitechurch 

The Reverend Victor Whitechurch was by all accounts a mild-mannered man, well-loved by his parishioners in the villages of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire where he ministered. After a day of visits to the elderly and the sick, he would put aside his plans for that Sunday’s sermon, pick up his pen and turn his attention to crime. 

Thankfully the criminality was all in his imagination. Reverend Whitechurch, born in 1868, was the first in a long and distinguished line of clergymen who have written mystery novels. 

As well as penning one-off crime hits such as 1904’s The Canon in Residence (so popular in its day, it was adapted for both the stage and radio) and Diana’s Pool, which featured vicar-detective Reverend Harry Westerham, Whitechurch also created one of the most eccentric detectives of all time.

The Canon in Residence

The Canon in Residence

By Victor Whitechurch

Crime at Diana's Pool

Crime at Diana’s Pool

By Victor Whitechurch

Thorpe Hazell is a railway-obsessed vegetarian with so many quirks and tics he makes Sherlock Holmes look a model of boring conformity.  The sleuth, who eats raw onions for lunch, appeared in nine tightly plotted short stories that were collected together in Thrilling Stories of the Railways. They were greatly admired by Dorothy L. Sayers who praised the logical outlines and factual accuracy. Ellery Queen, meanwhile called Thorpe Hazell “the first of the specialty detectives”. 

Thrilling Stories of the Railway

Thrilling Stories of the Railways

By Victor Whitechurch

Monsignor Ronald Knox

The Reverend Whitechurch died in 1933, by which time his position as the leading ecclesiastical exponent of mystery fiction had been usurped by Monsignor Ronald Knox.

A founding member of The Detection Club, a close friend of G.K Chesterton, and great admirer of Sherlock Holmes, Knox wrote his first detective novel, The Viaduct Murder in 1925. This was followed by a series of five books featuring large, untidy and absent-minded private sleuth, Miles Bredon, a former military intelligence officer who works for a large London insurance company.  

The Viaduct Murder

The Viaduct Murder

By Ronald Knox

Knox also invented “The Rules of Detective Fiction” that were adopted by other leading writers from The Golden Age of British Crime Writing. Unfortunately, his own mystery fiction career was curtailed when he was told by his bishop that it was “an unworthy practice for a Catholic priest” and that he must give it up.

Cyril Alington 

The Church of England was more forgiving when it came to the hobbies of its clergymen. The Dean of Durham Cathedral, Cyril Alington wrote a series of Golden Age whodunnits featuring the sleuthing Archdeacons of Thorpe and Garminster. Most are set in a typical English county, Blankshire, though the best of them, Archdeacons Afloat sees the two dog-collared detectives improbably berthed on a Mediterranean cruise ship. The crime books, alongside his work as a priest, propelled Alington to such fame he made the cover of Time magazine.

Archdeacons Afloat

Archdeacons Afloat

By Cyril Alington

Canon James Hannay 

Irish Anglican priest Canon James Hannay was perhaps the most prolific priest-writer in history. Under the pen name George A. Birmingham, the Belfast-born cleric knocked out over 120 novels in all manner of genres—many based on his experiences as a campaigner for Irish Home Rule in the years leading up to The Easter Rising. Fourteen of his books were mysteries of which the best.

Wild Justice (1930)—set in a rural English village with strong links to Ireland—is very good indeed. His books sold so well, Canon Hannay was able to buy himself a yacht.

Wild Justice George A Birmingham

Wild Justice

By George A. Birmingham

Reverend Philip Turner (aka Stephen Chance)

Reverend Philip Turner, a Church of England priest who served as chaplain at the super-posh Eton College, adopted the pseudonym Stephen Chance to pen five detective novels featuring clerical sleuth Father Septimus Treloar, a vicar based in the marshlands of East Anglia. The Septimus mysteries were an instant hit. The first of them, Septimus and the Danedyke Mystery (1971) was made into a successful British TV series. Turner also wrote award-winning books for children.

Septimus and the Danedyke Mystery

Septimus and the Danedyke Mystery

By Stephen Chance

William X. Kienzle

Certainly not suitable for a younger audience, are the Michigan-set crime novels of William X. Kienzle. Kienzle served as Roman Catholic priest for over two decades before quitting Holy Orders and becoming a writer. He produced a series of 24 grisly crime novels featuring clerical sleuth Father Robert Koesler beginning with 1978s The Rosary Murders (filmed in 1987 with Donald Sutherland as Father Koesler). 1980s Death Wears a Red Hat is typical of his work. It features ritual killings, conniving reporters, brutal cops, and a smattering of voodoo. Father Brown, it is not.

The Rosary Murders

The Rosary Murders

By William X. Kienzle

Father Brad Reynolds

Another American priest, Father Brad Reynolds, a Jesuit based in Portland, Oregon wrote four books featuring a priest detective, Father Mark Townsend. Heavily autobiographical and based on Reynold’s own experiences as a priest, the novels are on the grittier side of crime fiction. Cruel Sanctuary focuses on the murders of street kids in Seattle, while Ritual Death is set amongst a community of Native American fishermen.

Cruel Sanctuary by Brad Reynolds

Cruel Sanctuary

By Brad Reynolds

Reverend Richard Coles

Back in the altogether cozier world of the English countryside, we have the Canon Daniel Clement mysteries penned by popular Church of England vicar and broadcaster the Reverend Richard Coles. Set in the distinctly Agatha Christie-esque village of Champton, Murder Before Evensong and A Death in the Parish are so warm and wholesome reading them is like wrapping yourself in a fluffy blanket and eating a plate of scones.

Murder Before Evensong

Murder Before Evensong

By Richard Coles

A Death in the Parish

A Death in the Parish

By Richard Coles

Reverend Cristina Sumners

And finally, a female writer, Reverend Cristina Sumners. An Oxford University-educated Episcopalian minister, Sumners penned three mysteries featuring New Jersey-based minister detective Reverend Kathryn Koerney, commencing in 2003. Warm and empathetic and based around a will-they-won’t-they relationship between Koerney and local police chief Tom Holder, Sumners' books are a worthy addition to the clerical canon. 

Crooked Heart by Cristina Sumners

Crooked Heart

By Cristina Sumners