Help From Above: The Christian Mystery

I swallowed my fear and walked right up to Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Brown mysteries. He was shorter than I had imagined. I picture all successful authors to be skyscrapers.

He was delivering a speech on writing the Catholic mystery at the first conference for Catholic writers at Franciscan University at Steubenville. Being stuck manning the a table for the conference, I would not be able to hear him talk, so I took the one chance I had to let him know that I admired his work, and that I, too, yearned to write mysteries. In my hand I held a copy of Murder Most Trivial, a book I published on the Internet for public consumption (available for free at

He smiled and shook my hand. “I’ve heard of you,” he said. I was stunned. I had not heard of me.

Many months later, I celebrate the release of my mystery novel, Saints Preserve Us. Set in North Florida, the story centers around the theft of the body of a young girl about to be canonized. Though it is not what I would personally call a “Christian” mystery, there are enough elements in the book to lead one to believe this: the obvious references to Catholism, expository information on canonization and sainthood, and the devout nature of some characters.

As I have debated in other forums, however, does the mere presence of Christianity as a backdrop make a book Christian? Anne Rice, who recently returned to the Catholic Church after years of non-belief, may be considered a Catholic writer by some just by her current association with the faith, though I have heard others argue that if faith is only presented without characters adhering or coming to some certain terms to it (i.e. “becoming saved” as a result of the action in the story), the book cannot be considered Christian literature. While I can not define for certain what is and what is not a “Christian” mystery, I can say this: focus on quality writing and keep any history factual, and readers will enjoy your works religiously.

In the case of Saints, though the main character’s concern is finding the body of her departed ancestor and the person responsible for killing the cemetery’s maintainance man, there is a moment of prayerful solitude where she comes to terms with what has happened and decides to move forward after an unrelated tragedy. However, the character was never without faith, but rather reluctant to show it in the face of what she had suffered.

A writer interested in creating a sleuth for a fictional series might want to consider having a bit of faith. Browse the mystery shelves of your bookstore, and among the Kinsey Millhones and Mike Hammers you will a number of religious who manage to solve a crime or two in between Masses: the aforementioned Father Dowling, Andrew Greeley’s Father Blackie Ryan, Veronica Black’s Sister Joan, and Winona Sullivan’s Sister Cecile, among others. A character with an eye for the mysterious and a heart for God (who need not be a religious, perhaps a prayerful soul helping with a charity), I find, lends a calm and collected angle to a story. While logic and analytical thought eventually leads one to the killer, sometimes it take help from above for a nudge in the right direction.

For another nudge in the “write” direction, I suggest the following books, all of which were an immense help as I wrote Saints Preserve Us:

Making Saints : How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn’t, And Why – Kenneth Woodward; explains the process of canonization, helpful if your story concerns the subject

The Incorruptibles – Joan C. Cruz; a history of the explained phenomenon of deceased bodies of saintly people who have not decomposed.

Writer’s Digest’s “Howdunit” Series; an indispensible collection of reference guides for the mystery writer (Deadly Doses covers poisons and similar causes of death; Private Eyes reveals the secrets to writing a good detective)

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