Volume 20, No. 2, Summer 2004
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Sharan Newman: Mysteries from the Real Middle Ages by Carla Starrett-Bigg
- Jewish Detective Fiction: Questions, Highways & Byways by Fred Isaac
- Claire Aldington, a Priest in a Male Bastion by Nicole Décuré
- Unholy Island: Religion and Politics in the Irish Mysteries of John Brady and Bartholomew Gill by Dorena A. Wright
- Losing My Religion by Al Blanchard
- City of Angels by John Burdett
- Religion in Mysteries Can Be Fun by Chester D. Campbell
- What’s So Inspiring About Mysteries? by Mindy Starns Clark
- For Whom Do You Live? by Tess Collins
- Writing a Spiritual Whodunit by Pamela Cranston
- Fallen Angel by Carola Dunn
- Writing Religiously by Lynette Hall Hampton
- Murder in the Friary by Timothy Heald
- How Religion Has Figured In My Mysteries by Jeremiah Healy
- I Started In Crime… by Veronica Heley
- Why Does a Theologian Turn to Crime? by Laurie R. King
- Coming Out of the Orthodox Jewish Closet by Rochelle Krich
- The (Rhyming) Heart of the Matter by Robert S. Levinson
- God, Beede, Original Sin… and Me by Clyde Linsley
- And Author Created God by Michael Mallory
- On Repentances by Annette Meyers
- Okay, God—Who Committed the Crime? by Radine Trees Nehring
- Almost Impossible Fiction by Michael Oborn
- Jack in the Pulpit: A Martha’s Vineyard Mystery by Cynthia Riggs
- The Perfect Vehicle by Gayle Roper
- Religion, Murder Medieval and Conventional Wisdom by Priscilla Royal
- Writing for Children: Teaching Truth Through Fiction by Vonda Skinner Skelton
- The Power of Religion by Mark T. Sullivan
- A Dream, a Hope and Lots of Prayers by Aimée Thurlo
- Examining Faith, Salvation, and Religious Scandal in a Dark and Disturbing Murder Mystery by John Morgan Wilson
- MRI MAYHEM by Janet A. Rudolph
- Letters to the Editor
- From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph
Why does a theologian turn to crime?
We shall pause for a moment for the gallery’s catcalls to settle, ignoring nobly the hoots and cynicisms. Yes, yes; religion is a rich breeding ground for crime, but I’m not talking about the sins of the worldly church, I’m talking about theology, the study of God. Theos + logos: literally, God-talk.
I trained as a theologian. I did my BA in comparative religion (as a good Episcopalian, I pride myself in being comparatively religious) at the University of California at Santa Cruz, with classes as diverse as alchemy, Native American mythology, New Testament Greek, and Russian mysticism. I did my thesis on “The Holy Fool in Western Culture,” following the lives of those men and women who took to heart Paul’s command in I Corinthians that we should all be “fools for Christ’s sake,” embracing iconoclasm, resisting structurization. (Of course, we all know how Paul’s little experiment in Tricksterdom turned out, but the monolithic and unyielding nature of organized religion is a topic for another day.)
I then went on to look more closely at my own tradition, doing an MA at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. There I developed a fascination for the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. The Old Testament is story-telling at its finest, compelling and complex in spite of its sometimes fragmentary nature. Not only do plot and character intermingle pleasingly, but the smallest details of construction are vital: a brief word, a verb’s ending can change everything; a phrase of poetry is repeated with slight variations, and meaning opens up.
When time came to do my Master’s thesis, I chose a topic that interested me on several levels, following its specific story-line from its earliest appearances and through the centuries of the Old Testament, then leaving off when the New Testament began to play with the idea on its own. That thread was the appearance of feminine attributes in the otherwise masculine God of the Old Testament: God as midwife, God as mother nursing the infant child Jerusalem, and God as angry goddess (think Kali), complete with hymns coming straight from the worship of Canaanite and other goddesses. The adoption, and adaptation, of such songs and attributes fascinated me, the way the human mind takes a pre-existing language of religious speculation and uses it to say a new thing.
However, when I finished my Master’s degree, I had two small children, a husband gazing longingly at retirement, and twenty-six years left on the mortgage. A PhD would have meant at least seven or eight years of language study alone, after which the real work would begin.
While I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I began to write. And as is so often the case, life is what happens when you’re looking somewhere else.
As I wrote, I found that theology and religion crept in. Not just the patterns of storytelling and theology’s close attention to detail, but as a force to be reckoned with in the lives of my characters. What I wrote turned out to be crime fiction. This was not a deliberate choice, but something I edged into when I found the mystery form not only offered a solid, plot-based platform on which I could build my story, but also allowed me to deal with issues that were too hot-blooded for mainstream fiction. And, I was to discover, because when you’re writing a mystery, you can make use of pretty much any aspect of human life, so long as it has authority for the characters.
Crime fiction is all about passion. Not just sex, not merely the lust for money or revenge, but about anything that causes the people moving across the book’s pages to breathe more quickly—stamp-collecting, even, if the character has been built with sufficient care to make that normally phlegmatic hobby a source of choler. Desire, resentment, trickery, rage, all can coalesce around the most unexpected endeavors.
Mary Russell, the protagonist of seven books now (in a historical series, partnering her with Sherlock Holmes, which began in 1915 with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice [St Martin’s, 1994], and with The Game [Bantam, March 2004] has reached 1924), shares her author’s interest in things theological and feminist. This enables Russell to go places another would not, so that in A Monstrous Regiment of Women (St Martin’s, 1995), she tutors a woman religious leader on the feminine aspects of God (by interesting coincidence, the same subject as my own Master’s Thesis some sixty years later), thus ingratiating herself into the center of a crime ring. A Letter of Mary (St Martin’s, 1997) moves around a papyrus that appears to have been written by one Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles—a letter that could change the face of Christianity forever. And O Jerusalem (Bantam, 1999) finds Russell and Holmes in Palestine, where the very air is thick with god-talk.
The contemporary series I do also draws on religion. Kate Martinelli, homicide inspector with the San Francisco Police Department, encounters a modern-day trickster in To Play the Fool (St Martin’s, 1995), a man who takes to heart Paul’s urging to iconoclasm. And Night Work (Bantam, 2000) finds Martinelli face to face with the incomprehensible (to her) worship of the angry and destructive goddess Kali, when a group of angry and destructive women seek to draw on the store of rage all women hold.
The first stand-alone I did, A Darker Place (Bantam, 1999), is entirely about theology and religion. Anne Waverley is a professor and expert on modern religious movements, those entities a disapproving press dubs “cults.” And in her spare time, she becomes a member of one or another such movements, investigating the religious community for the government and judging the group’s relative stability, alert for any with the potential of being the next Waco or Jonestown. The book is about Anne, about her struggles to redeem herself and to salvage something of her own history, but it is also about how far we humans will go in our quest for meaning in a world of chaos.
It’s a tricky business, using religion in a fictional setting. Too far in one direction, and it stinks of proselytizing; too far in the other, and it appears to despise the believer. And to a recovering academic like me, the hazards of popularization loom large: I’m sorry, but from a scholar’s point of view, The Da Vinci Code is nonsense.
Much has been made of the deeper meaning of the word mystery, playing on our fiction genre’s tenuous connections with religious mysteries, particularly the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, which were used to illustrate Biblical stories and lives of the saints for the illiterate masses. Certainly, fiction can occasionally aim to illuminate religious precepts (more specifically, in the case of crime fiction, ethics and morals) to the great unwashed of the ethically illiterate (more specifically, in the case of our third millennium, those who simply haven’t the time to tackle Thomas Aquinas in the original.)
However, the meaning of the word mysterion is problematic, and the case for using the word to attribute a deeper spiritual meaning to The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or even The Hound of the Baskervilles, is shaky.
Sometimes a puzzle is just a puzzle.
Laurie R. King, a native of northern California, holds an honorary doctorate from her seminary, CDSP. She has written fourteen crime novels, including 2004’s The Game, in which Russell and Holmes venture to India in search of a missing spy. For more, and more on Laurie’s thoughts on theology, see her web site, laurierking.com.
Sixteen years ago, after picking up the gauntlet my husband threw down (“Stop kvetching about wanting to be a published writer; sit down and write a book”), I began my first mystery and followed the conventional wisdom: Write what you know.
In my case, that was Orthodox Judaism. Like my parents, Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States when I was a toddler, I have been Orthodox throughout my life. I observe laws and enjoy rituals that are second nature to me but may appear exotic and restrictive to most, and I grapple with the challenges of balancing my faith and my career. I wanted to share my world with readers—Jewish and non-Jewish; those who identify with Orthodox Judaism or may be familiar with it; others who know little or nothing about it and may have misconceptions based on stereotypes in books or in film. I wanted to write about my world within the framework of a mystery, because mysteries have been my passion for as long as I can remember.
The mystery that I sat down to write, which I called The Get, deals with an Orthodox Jewish woman whose controlling husband won’t give her a get, the Jewish divorce without which she can never remarry. I sent the completed, un-agented manuscript to several publishing houses and received enough rejection letters to paper a small room. Most of the letters complimented my writing and the story and contained variations of the same phrase: The book was tough to sell “in this crowded marketplace.” With each rejection I wondered whether the marketplace was tougher because of the subject matter. Was my mystery, as the stand-up comedian Jackie Mason says in one of his routines, too Jewish?
That concern was probably at the back of my mind when I wrote my suspense novel, Where’s Mommy Now? (Pinnacle, 1990). No Jewish themes, no Jewish characters, not a blintz or lox-and-bagel in sight. (Well, there was a psychologist whom I subconsciously named for my guidance counselor at the Jewish women’s college I attended. I didn’t realize it until a friend pointed it out years later.) My agent sold the book. Several weeks after it was published, an Avon editor phoned to tell me she loved Where’s Mommy and wanted to know whether I had written anything else. “Anything else” was The Get, which Avon bought and published as Till Death Do Us Part (1992). God or my agent didn’t want me to have a swelled head, and a few weeks after I received the contract for Till Death, my agent forwarded a rejection letter from another publisher. That editor loved the book, too, but wondered whether there was a large enough readership for a story about an Orthodox Jewish woman whose husband won’t give her a Jewish divorce.
So I was back to worrying, which I do well. Maybe that explains why in Nowhere To Run (1993), the suspense novel I wrote after Till Death, there are no Jewish characters. And why in the first Jessie Drake mystery, Fair Game (Mysterious, 1993), Jessie, my LAPD homicide detective, isn’t Jewish.
I was playing it safe.
As it turned out, Jessie was Jewish. She just didn’t know it. Neither did I, until the second book in the series, Angel of Death (Mysterious, 1994). I learned only a chapter or so before Jessie that her abusive mother, Frances, was Jewish, and that Frances’s parents, desperate to save her from the fate that awaited them at the hands of the Nazis who had invaded Poland, had left her for safekeeping with Polish gentiles in whose home the cycle of abuse began. In spite of Frances’s warning that there is nothing romantic about being Jewish—or possibly because of it—Jessie is intent on exploring her newly discovered heritage, and in the next three books (Blood Money, 1999; Dead Air, 2000; and Shadows of Sin, 2001; all from Morrow), she takes the reader with her on her spiritual journey.
But Jessie is an outsider, an observer, part of the larger, non-Jewish world. In a way I was still playing it safe. Then along came Molly Blume, a true crime writer and freelance tabloid journalist who writes a weekly Crime Sheet column.
Molly was probably in my head for a long time, waiting for me to be comfortable enough to let her out. She is Orthodox Jewish, as are her parents and six siblings and most of the people she knows. And though she strayed from Orthodox observance for a few years, and her skirts and sleeves are shorter than Orthodox law dictates, in Blues in the Night (Ballantine, 2002) she becomes romantically involved with the high school hunk who dumped her—and is now a rabbi. (“I don’t date rabbis,” she tells her mother in the opening chapter, but this rabbi won’t take no for an answer.) In constructing Molly’s background, I wanted to give her a wholesome family life and spiritual values to buffer the grimness of the victims and crimes she reads about and sometimes investigates. I also gave her a widowed grandmother, Bubbie G, a Holocaust survivor who shares Molly’s love of mysteries and imparts to Molly Yiddish humor and wisdom that Molly passes on to the reader. Some of these Yiddish jokes and proverbs come from my memory and from family members. Some come from books that I’ve added to my collection. One of my favorites is in Dream House, the second Molly Blume mystery. Bubbie G tells Molly that “Der emess is a kricher.” Truth is a slowpoke.
I think that applies to my life as well.
When I began writing mysteries, like Jessie’s mother, I was hiding my identity, though not as dramatically. I recall the first time I was invited to a dinner hosted by a group for which I was speaking. I ordered a fruit plate—”No cottage cheese, please, no dressing.” When the event organizers inquired about my choice, I told them I was on a special diet. I was reluctant to reveal that I kept kosher. I felt uncomfortable. I had lived a highly sheltered life for over forty years. I was the daughter of Holocaust survivors who had learned to be cautious about their faith and observance.
Two years, two books, and several mystery conventions later, I no longer felt uncomfortable telling people that I keep kosher, or explaining to bookstore owners that I couldn’t do events on Friday nights or Saturdays or certain Jewish holidays because I observe the Sabbath. I came out of the Orthodox Jewish closet, and I have been treated with great respect, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity.
There are challenges in balancing faith and career. I wasn’t able to attend Bouchercon in Vegas last year because it fell on a Jewish holiday (Sukkot), and I won’t be going to Bouchercon in Toronto this year for the same reason. When I do attend weekend conventions, I have to make arrangements for kosher food and reserve a refrigerator and a low floor (I can’t use the elevator on the Sabbath). I have missed promotional opportunities because of my religious observance, and while I have felt some disappointment, ultimately those missed opportunities ground me. I tend to be compulsive about my career, and I need a reminder now and then that being a writer is part of my identity, but not all of it, that life is about setting priorities, making choices.
I also face challenges in writing about Orthodox Judaism. How do I impart tradition without overwhelming plot and character? How much do I assume that my reader knows about Judaism? How much Yiddish or Hebrew should I include? (Responding to requests from readers, we added a glossary to the paperback edition of the first Molly Blume mystery, Blues in the Night, and have included a glossary with Dream House (Ballantine, 2003), as well as Grave Endings, which will be published in October of 2004).
How do I allow my protagonist to be true to the religious principles that govern her daily activities and shape her views about people and life without making her so removed that readers won’t identify with her? A police detective who is contemplating keeping the Sabbath? (I learned that there’s an organization of Sabbath-observant police in New York.) “A thirty-four-year-old virgin?” my agent asked when she read the proposal for my legal thriller, Speak No Evil (Mysterious, 1997). An engaged couple who don’t have sex? Here’s what one reviewer of Dream House had to say on that subject: “Readers who can overcome their skepticism will be surprised and charmed by the restraint in Orthodox Jewish dating. Apparently, the couple don’t and won’t—until they will say ‘I do.'”
The good news, for me, is that the editor who worried that there wouldn’t be a readership for a mystery about an Orthodox Jewish protagonist was wrong. I receive countless letters and e-mails from Jewish and non-Jewish readers around the world who are fascinated by Jessie’s journey and want to know where she’s headed, readers who identify with Molly and enjoy spending time with her and learning about Jewish traditions.
I’m gratified, but not surprised. Mystery readers, I have found, are eager to explore different cultures and different worlds.
Hollywood can take a lesson.
For more about Rochelle Krich and her writing, see RochelleKrich.com.