Sister Anne, of the Convent of St Anselm, has been found dead at the bottom of the cellar steps. The back of her head has been shattered by a heavy blow but there’s a curious absence of blood at the scene. What was meant to look like an accident is soon revealed to be murder. Inspector C D Sloan of Calleshire CID arrives, accompanied by his very raw constable, William Crosby. A convent is foreign territory to Sloan & his investigation isn’t helped by the unhelpfulness of witnesses who practice custody of the eyes & make a virtue of being unobservant. Sister Anne was seen at Vespers on the night of her death but, when forensic surgeon Dr Dabbe determines that she must have been dead at least two hours earlier, who was it who sat in her stall in Chapel? And where were Sister Anne’s glasses when she couldn’t see very far without them?
Before she entered the convent, Sister Anne had been Josephine Cartwright, a member of a wealthy family, who disowned her when she became a nun. That wealth was made in munitions during the Great War & Sister Anne is due to inherit a substantial amount of money which her disapproving family can’t prevent. She wants to use the money to build a cloister for the convent & to further the order’s work in the mission field but this plan would not please her cousin, Harold, the Managing Director of the firm which is just about to be listed as a public company.Why should Harold Cartwright have suddenly decided to visit his cousin after twenty years, on the very day she’s murdered? Could one of Sister Anne’s fellow nuns murdered her for the sake of the inheritance? Sloan must try to penetrate the bland courtesy & unvarying routines of the nuns to discover if any of the Sisters had a secret in their past that could have led to murder.
The investigation takes another turn when the students at the nearby Agricultural Institute dress their Bonfire Night Guy in a nun’s habit. After an anonymous tip off, Sloan arrives just in time to rescue the guy from the flames & discovers that it’s also wearing Sister Anne’s glasses. Three students confess to stealing the old habit from the convent on the night of the murder but deny knowing anything about the glasses. When one of the students is found dead, strangled in the Convent shrubbery, it seems that he must have seen something that was dangerous to the murderer, whether he realised it or not.
The Religious Body was the first of Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloan mysteries, published in 1966. I must have discovered them in the 1980s & I’ve read them all. I can’t resist a convent mystery (having recently reread Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun) & it’s been so many years since I read this that it was like reading a new novel. Open Road Media have released many of the Sloan series as eBooks & we’ve bought some for our eBook collection at work so I plan to read a few more of the early books. Reading The Religious Body reminded me of Catherine Aird’s only non-series mystery novel, A Most Contagious Game, which I’ve linked to in my featured post this week. I do like her writing style, her cool, dry humour & she has a real sense of atmosphere. Inspector Sloan is an engaging detective who has much to put up with the very inexperienced Crosby & his tetchy boss, Superintendent Leeyes.