blank'/> Clothes In Books: The Religious Body by Catherine Aird

Monday, 2 June 2014

The Religious Body by Catherine Aird

published 1966







Sister Lucy came into the Parlour with Sister Gertrude. They bowed slightly, then sat down, hands clasped together in front, and looked at him expectantly.

Sloan undid a brown-paper parcel he had brought with him.

“This habit. Can you tell me anything about it?”

Sister Lucy leaned forward, and Sloan got a good look at her face for the first time. The bone structure was perfect. He didn’t know about Sister Anne, but Sister Lucy would have cut quite a figure in a drawing-room. He tried to imagine hair where there was only white coif now. With Sister Gertrude it was easier. Hers was the round jolly face of a “good sort”, the games mistress at a girls’s school, the unmarried daughter…

“Yes, Inspector, I think I can.” Sister Lucy’s voice was quiet and unaccented. “This is the spare habit that we keep in the flower room. Should any Sister get wet while out in the grounds she can slip this on instead while she asks permission to dry her own habit in the laundry. It is kept behind the door on a hook.” She turned it round expertly. “You see, here is the hook. It is very old and worn now, but none the less blessed for that.”




observations: This is a book left over from a flurry of nun activity earlier in the year. Margot Kinberg featured it on her splendid Confessions of a Mystery Novelist website in January, and I was writing about nuns for the Guardian newspaper’s books blog.

Not that I need excuses – I love books about nuns, any kind, and murder stories are particularly good. There have been a few already featured – two books (under different author names) by Jane Haddam, Sister Agnes in London – and maybe one day we can get round to Antonia Fraser’s seminal Quiet as a Nun.

In this one the nuns are not the detectives: this is the first of Catherine Aird’s books, and she introduces her solid coppers, Sloan and Crosby, who are an entertaining pair. They won’t change much over the series of books, but at least (unlike most fictional sleuths) they are not busily having dreadful private lives, problems with alcohol, corruption and disastrous past cases. Though there is a very odd moment in this one in which our lovely reliable inspector arranges a sheet round his wife’s head in bed in order to see what she’d look like as a nun… it’s quite an uncomfortable gesture.

There’s a nice picture of a business and businessman:
Not closed minds, if you know what I mean. They’re not entirely convinced that one computer will do the work of fifty men, but if you prove it to them they’ll buy the computer and see the fifty men don’t suffer from it.
All in all an entertaining read, without being disturbing or over-exciting or too involving – just what you need sometimes.

The picture is from the Northern Ireland Record Office.

18 comments:

  1. Moira, the passage you reproduced above is so lucid that one can picture the scene clearly. I don't recall reading books about nuns but I have read those featuring priests, even the pontiff in "The Clowns of God" by Morris West. Have you read it? The only fictional nuns I remember are the ones in musicals like "The Sound of Music" and "Sister Act."

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    1. I have read a couple of books by Morris West, but I'm not sure about that one. I assembled quite a few fictional nuns for my Guardian piece, perhaps I should move on to male religious. West seems to have disappeared now, but he wrote good books. And there's an American called JF Powers whose books on priests I enjoyed....

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  2. Moira - Thank you for the kind words and lovely mention. I think you've hit on something really appealing about this book - well, about the series. Sloan and Crosby admittedly don't do a lot of deep character evolution over the course of the series. But they are refreshingly normal (whatever normal is!). Sometimes it's nice to read about 'regular' coppers doing their jobs. OK, the sheet around the wife's head is a little odd, but still...

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    1. Margot I was so glad you pointed this one out to me - it fitted both my own preferences AND my writing preoccupations at the time so was a real winner. And the reader is always in safe hands with Catherine Aird.

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  3. I'm not quite as fascinated as you when it comes to nuns. I do like hearing about "olden times" and the limited contact my aunt was allowed with home after she had joined an Ursuline order. She was I think only allowed home once a year, this would have been back in the 50's, when she was at a convent in Thurles, Tipperary. Things undoubtedly relaxed over the intervening years and my aunt had a very rewarding career as first a primary school teacher and subsequently as a headmistress. She's retired now, but still very active in Catholic education in Wales. She got some sort of gong or recognition from the Queen the other year.

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    1. That's so interesting Col - the lives of these women are so unimaginable to young women of today, but they did achieve such a lot. I don't suppose many people fancy it now, but I think it did give women the chance to lead successful and fulfilling lives back in the day....

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  4. This was the first book by Aird that I read, and I liked it well enough to want to continue reading her books (but I have still only read three total). I have a thing for mysteries with nuns in them, too, and the Jane Haddam series about Gregor Demarkian has some good ones. I have a couple I haven't tried yet... by some other authors, that I can't remember off the top of my head.

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    1. Jane Haddam and Gregor Demarkian is a taste we share Tracy - I love those books. And will always give a nun book a go. There was a series by Veronica Black probably in the 90s, did you ever read them? All called 'A Vow of...' something. They were set in England, though you got the impression the author didn't really know the UK very well, and I enjoyed them in a light way.

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    2. Veronica Black sounds familiar, but not sure I ever read any of her books. They look interesting; I will try one.

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  5. This is not a type of mystery I'd seek out, perhaps it's because so many of my friends who went to parochial school were beaten by nuns with rulers and mops, etc. So, I avoid contact in fiction and have no contact in real life.

    However, I'd imagine that there have been educational and job opportunities for nuns at a time when other women had none or few.

    A well-known midwife in my city started out as a nun and was sent to college by her convent. Then she decided to leave it and go on to become a midwife.

    And in the States, there is a national grouping of activist nuns who work on social issues and aid low-income people in many areas. They're highly respected over here, although the Vatican has rapped their knuckles a few times.

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    1. I can see it doesn't attract you, but all the interesting points you raise are the reasons I like to read books about nuns. I have read a fair bit about modern US nuns and found it fascinating. I would love to read a novel about that!

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  6. Really? Interesting. I'm a scaredy-cat, and when I hear of people being harmed by others, I stay away from them, even in fiction.

    However, I am drawn by Catherine Aird, and want to read Henrietta Who? and a few others. I'd never heard of her until I read a few blogs about her. So, she would be a perfect author to peruse over the summer.

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    1. But then, they weren't all wicked and cruel, many were the complete opposite, as I know from extensive experience of my own.

      I think Catherine Aird would be the perfect author to enjoy over the summer.

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  7. To be balanced here, the activist work done by U.S. nuns and their dedication to low-income communities does draw my attention and I respect their standing up to their superiors. I just hope they are not stifled, as I haven't seen them on news shows this year.

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  8. Yippee! One leading nun, Simone Campbell, was on TV a lot in the last few years. She's very good on many issues. But the powers-that-be in her world called her and others of her colleagues to Rome, and then sent a top bishop to see them in the States.

    And I read in a NY Times column a few weeks ago that a German bishop was going to call them to heed once again as they were promoting a woman theologian who has a different view of religious figures than is permitted.

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    1. The Catholic church sometimes seems to be 50 years behind the times in its treatment of all women.

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  9. 50? I'd say more like 500 years! They would still put Galileo under house arrest!
    They won't let women be ordained, for one thing. Top bishops also took the position against the healthcare bill, the Affordable Care Act.
    And on social issues here affecting women and gay people!! Yikes! Can't even get started on that.

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