Originally Published 1966
The Calleshire Chronicles #1
Followed by Henrietta Who?
The day begins like any other for Sister Mary St. Gertrude. When her alarm sounds at 5 a.m., Sister Mary begins rousting her convent sisters from their beds, starting with the Reverend Mother. Down the Order she goes with a knock and a warm blessing. But when the young nun reaches Sister Anne’s door, there is no answer. She assumes that Sister Anne got up early, and continues on her way.
But later, when a fellow nun leaves a bloody thumbprint on the sheet music for a hymn, and Sister Anne is nowhere to be found, it becomes apparent that something is very wrong. Then Sister Anne’s body is found at the bottom of a steep set of stairs, her veil askew and her head crushed.
The Religious Body is the first in Catherine Aird’s Calleshire Chronicles series set in a fictional English county. I must confess that when I picked up this book I had never heard of this series but clearly it has its fans as over fifty years after this was published Aird continues to write Inspector Sloan stories.
The story concerns the disappearance of Sister Anne, a nun within the Convent of St. Anselm. She appears to have vanished suddenly from the building but without any clear cause and there is some confusion as to when she was last seen. Concerned, the nuns organize a search of the building and she is discovered dead at the foot of a set of stairs.
Though it is presumed that she just slipped and tumbled to her death the crime scene presents some problems. For one thing, the door to those stairs was supposed to be locked and access to the keys was limited. For another, there are signs on the skull that are consistent with being hit with a heavy spherical object. And then there is the problem that there are no signs of either a weapon or physical evidence suggesting violence at the scene of death, suggesting Sister Anne was killed elsewhere and her body moved some time later.
The Religious Body seems to often get labeled as a procedural novel yet the setup is pure puzzle mystery. While this is close to being a closed circle mystery, Aird does not present us with a clearly defined list of suspects to pick from but instead she challenges the reader to understand why Sister Anne might have been targeted in the first place.
One of the reasons for this approach is that the victim seems an unlikely target. Sister Anne has no known enemies and as a longstanding member of the convent it is hard to understand why she would suddenly be targeted. Also the sequence of events on the night in question seems confusing while the appearance of the dead woman’s glasses on a guy effigy at a local school’s Bonfire Night festivities shortly after the murder to make little sense. On the face of things there is little outlandish in this case and yet when examined more closely nothing seems to make sense.
Investigating the case are Inspector Sloan and his assistant, Detective Constable Crosby. They make for a pretty pleasing, if not particularly colorful pair of lead characters. We largely interact with them professionally in this novel, getting only short glimpses of their private lives but both are shown to be smart and observant.
The aspects of the book that really resonated with me were those detailing convent lives. For instance, in the opening chapters of the book we read about the monotony of a nun’s responsibility to wake up all of the others each morning and later about the restrictions concerning the visitors they may receive or the way they can spend their time without specific work assignments. The details feel well-researched and authentic, helping to bring this setting and the characters to life.
I think Aird handles these aspects of her setting quite skillfully, at times presenting strong opinions on the part of her characters while ultimately remaining respectful of the women’s right to choose that life and make that commitment. Most of these characters and their conflicts feel convincing and I was interested to learn more about their lives.
As much as I appreciated following the investigation and learning about the suspects and incidental characters, I did feel a little disappointed with an aspect of the solution to the case. While I thought the murder was interesting mechanically and I understood the killer’s motive in committing it, I couldn’t quite get to grips with their motivations for some of the events in their life that precede it.
In spite of my issue with this aspect of the book, I still found it to be interesting and entertaining. Aird clearly had researched her setting well and I had little difficulty believing that these characters could exist. Though the case is quite low-key and lacks any shocking or unexpected moments, I think it is quietly effective and I appreciated the convincing and detailed setting.
It adds up for a solid read, particularly if you are someone who enjoys mysteries set within religious communities, and while I don’t feel any great sense of urgency I fully expect to read others within this series in the future.