Thursday, November 11, 2010

What in the World is an Ecclesiastical Thriller?

Today we welcome Donna Fletcher Crow to discuss her new novel and tell us about the world of clerical detectives. Welcome, Donna!

Thank you, Bobbye, for inviting me over to introduce your readers to my Ecclesiastical Thriller A VERY PRIVATE GRAVE, book #1 in my Monastery Murders series.

And if I’ve lost some of you right there and you’re wondering “What kind of thriller did she say?” Let me assure you you’re not alone. I was a little taken aback when a columnist in Canada requested to review my book and then asked, “What’s an Ecclesiastical Thriller?” Oh, my goodness, I not only have to worry about her liking my book, I also have to worry about her liking, or at least understanding, my subgenre. So before I tell you all to rush out (or rush to my website) to buy A VERY PRIVATE GRAVE it might be useful to discuss my subgenre of choice.

You’ll notice I say “discuss” not “define” because like so many labels, Ecclesiastical Thriller is a fluid one. Even among practitioners of the craft. Kate Charles, who in my mind is the Queen of the genre, prefers the term Clerical Mystery. And Phil Rickman, one of my all-time favorites, refuses to label his Merrily Watkins. He says, “I absolutely did not want to go there. Too cosy, too safe, and too... well, too religious, I suppose.”

Many, beginning with G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, simply write their series and let others label. Perhaps that was easier before Amazon wanted everything tagged so they could say “if you like that book, you may like. . .” Susan Howatch frames her psychological thrillers in terms of Anglican history and P. D. James wrote DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS, to my mind the best clerical mystery of all, as one of her Adam Dalgliesh series.

A most useful website “Clerical Detectives” ( lists more than 210 clerical detectives including priests, ministers, rabbis, a Shaker, the clerk of a Quaker meeting, Buddhists and a Muslim.

Okay, that’s some of the “who” but it still doesn’t tell us “what.” I asked the question on GoodReads some time ago and my friend Sheila said, “I'd say all that's required is that the church (or synagogue, monastery or convent) or clergy, rabbi, nuns, or monks should be prominent in the story.” That seems like a good start, although I think the ecclesiastical setting needs to go further so that it actually forms the thoughts and actions of the main characters. They need to be more than simply photographed against an interesting Gothic background. Or as the Clerical Detectives website puts it, “characters whose lives really were influenced by their faiths.”

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Ferguson stories are an excellent example of this where everything Clare does and thinks is formed by the fact that she is a priest.

Sheila also said, “It seems to me that all the mysteries I think of as ecclesiastical do more or less have a spiritual theme.” And here it seems that we are getting close to the heart of the matter. Until I begin trying to define more sharply and realize that all mysteries are about the clash of good versus evil and strive for the triumph of right over wrong— What P. D. James calls “bringing order out of chaos.”

And so, at the end of the day it gets back to “Showing, not telling.” The best I can do is invite you to my website where you can see my trailer on the home page and pictures of some of the churches and monasteries I’ve visited under Research Albums. At least it will give you an idea of how I defined and went about crafting my Ecclesiastical Thriller (A term I prefer to Clerical Mystery because it connotes more action. As Phil Rickman said, this isn’t a cozy) wherein:

Felicity Howard, a young American studying for the Anglican priesthood at the College of the Transfiguration in Yorkshire, is devastated when she finds her beloved Fr. Dominic brutally murdered and Fr. Antony, her church history lecturer, soaked in his blood.

A Very Private Grave is a contemporary novel with a thoroughly modern heroine who must learn some ancient truths in order to solve the mystery and save her own life as she and Fr. Antony flee a murderer and follow clues that take them to out-of-the way sites in northern England and southern Scotland. The narrative skillfully mixes detection, intellectual puzzles, spiritual aspiration, romance, and the solving of clues ancient and modern.

And Kate Charles was kind enough to say: “With a bludgeoned body in Chapter 1, and a pair of intrepid amateur sleuths, A Very Private Grave qualifies as a traditional mystery. But this is no mere formulaic whodunit: it is a Knickerbocker Glory of a thriller. At its centre is a sweeping, page-turning quest – in the steps of St. Cuthbert – through the atmospherically-depicted North of England, served up with dollops of Church history and lashings of romance. In this novel, Donna Fletcher Crow has created her own niche within the genre of clerical mysteries.” – Kate Charles, author of Deep Waters


  1. Bobbye, thank you again for inviting me to guest on your beautiful blog. It's a joy to be here.

  2. The pleasure is all mine, Donna.

  3. I'm a huge fan on Julia Spencer-Fleming, but I never actually thought of her work as part of a sub-genre. And I was pleased to see you mention idea of the spiritual and moral foundation that is (for me anyway)an important part of any traditional mystery, but perhaps more prominently so in an ecclesiastical. Thanks for an interesting discussion, Donna and Bobbye.

  4. Dona, this sounds like a real page turner. Best of luck! So nice to learn a new author.

  5. Tina and Caroline, How lovely to meet new readers! Thank you for coming by. Tina, be sure to try Kate Charles and Phil Rickman, too if you enjoy Julia S-F.