I love a good clerical crime. D M Greenwood was one of my favourite mystery writers back in the 90s & I’m really pleased that Ostara Publishing have begun reprinting her novels featuring Theodora Braithwaite as a deaconess whose common sense & intelligence is much needed in the backbiting murderous corridors of Anglican Church. Clerical Errors is the first book in the series & introduces Theodora, tall, calm, kind & a woman who sees the foibles & problems in the Church while still devoting her life to it.
Julia Smith, a young woman at a loose end & looking for a role in life, arrives for a job interview at the diocesan office of St Manicus. She’s bewildered by the Church hierarchy & unsure that her meagre typing skills are up to the job but she is offered the post by Canon Wheeler. As she recovers from the interview in the Cathedral, she is startled to hear a woman screaming. When she goes to investigate, she discovers a man’s head in the font.
This is not a good start to Julia’s working life but she is taken under the wing of Theodora, who works in the diocesan office & Ian Caretaker, an administrator in the office. Julia soon realises that Canon Wheeler is a bully, a man of obscure origins using the power of his position, & the absolute loyalty of his secretary, Rosamund Coldharbour, to intimidate more timid souls. He also takes advantage of the frailty of the current Bishop & obviously has his eye on his next step up the diocesan ladder. The dead man is Paul Gray, a young priest from a local parish. There was a little mystery & some murky scandal in his past but there seems to be no real motive for his murder & in such a horrible way. Was the placing of his head in the font a message to another member of clergy or to the Church?
Theodora & Ian begin investigating the murder but are they becoming sidetracked by other strange events such as the discovery of some of the Cathedral candles being used in what looks like a Satanic rite? The police are being thwarted by the closed shop mentality of the clergy & Canon Wheeler enjoys wrong footing them at every turn. Ian’s contempt for Canon Wheeler is obvious & the Canon is determined to get rid of him. Ian’s talent as an administrator would make it hard for him to be dismissed but is there something in his past that could trip him up? Then, a second murder takes place & the secrets of everyone caught up in the case are uncovered.
I like Theodora as a character very much. I found this first book a little frustrating as there wasn’t really enough of Theodora & much more of Julia Smith who, apart from discovering the bodies & being a convenient audience for Theo & Ian’s speculations, doesn’t really have much to do except follow them around. I know we see much more of Theo in the later books as I read them all when they were first published & I’d like to read them all again. Theo is in the tradition of the great loner detectives, partly because of her job & vocation but also because she’s an observer. This, & her compassion, is what makes her such an engaging character. She is a little on the sidelines, watching everything & everyone but keeping her own counsel. Her knowledge of the personalities involved here is what leads her to the murderer. The Cathedral setting is also beautifully evoked, not surprising really as D M Greenwood was the Director of Education for the diocese of Rochester until her retirement in 2004. She wrote nine novels in the series in the 1990s. I’ve always loved a good clerical mystery. Kate Charles is another favourite & I enjoyed the beginning of a new series, The Reluctant Detective by Martha Ockley last year. I hope both these authors publish new books soon. Until then, I may have to invest in some more D M Greenwood.