Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Tuesday List: Churches and Cathedrals in Literature



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Writer and blogfriend Christine Poulson and I have decided to do another of our joint booklists – we publish them on the same day, and encourage readers to look at both lists, and add their own suggestions in the comments of either blog. This time we’ve chosen a religious theme: our last joint venture was the WW2 homefront, and there are links to the other pieces there.
 
So these are my top eight books with a church or cathedral setting: click here to see Chrissie’s.
 
Barbara Pym Excellent Women – most of Pym’s books have a significant church presence in them: I have chosen this one because it is one of my favourites, and also because the plotline concerning the vicar, his sister and the glamorous widow is particularly Pym-esque. The London parish in post-war days is beautifully described and very real, while the fractured relationships shown are funny, but also affecting and all too imaginable.

Dorothy L Sayers The Nine Tailors – magic in the fens. Again, the village of Fenchurch St Paul, the church and the vicar are so beautifully realized that when you drive around the area you half-expect to come across the village. Lord Peter Wimsey happens upon the place by accident one New Year’s Eve, and gets caught up in a complicated crime case. The vicar (apparently based on Sayers’s father) is a lovely character, and the church descriptions and the bell-ringing sequences are wonderful.

 
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Francesca Kay Translation of the Bones is very much contemporary. It is a beautiful book describing life in an RC parish in London, and a possible miracle. It takes a serious look at everyday moral choices, and at faith and belief. But it is also entertaining, and funny, and compelling, and touching.

Michael Arditti Easter - again contemporary, this time set in an Anglican church in London. Arditti is an acquired taste – this is strong stuff, and he can be very melodramatic, but he is also funny and clever and skewers modern mores very nicely.

Edmund Crispin Holy Disorders This is a real Cathedral Close mystery – who has attacked the organist? – and reflects Crispin’s own knowledge of church music. Clerics are always supposed to be great fans and writers of detective stories, and there are a lot of them revolving around churches. In this one the cathedral clergy are said to be ‘great readers – they have little else to do.’

 
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Michael David Anthony The Becket Factor Anthony wrote three detective stories set around Canterbury Cathedral in the 1990s: this was the first one. I think they are largely forgotten now, but I enjoyed them. They are an odd combination of traditional golden age church detection, and some very modern plot threads, and a bit of Cold War action too. All three books are great fun when you are in the mood for that kind of thing.

 
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J Meade Falkner The Nebuly Coat I only discovered this book last year, despite the same author’s Moonfleet being a great favourite of mine. Nebuly Coat is an absolutely wonderful book, a five-star read, one I am so glad to have found. It’s set in a small–town cathedral and concerns organists and church architects, mysteries and love. It is very hard to define, and at the end the reader has to make up his or her own mind about some of the plot happenings. It inspired The Nine Tailors (above), and is reminiscent of books from Dickens and Hardy and Trollope. And it is superb.

TS Eliot Murder in the Cathedral A play rather than a novel - and not the detective story it sounds like. A wonderful verse drama about the last days in the life of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his own cathedral after a dispute with his former friend, King Henry II. A riveting story, and beautiful poetry.


So those are my choices. Check out Christine Poulson’s here, and please add your own suggestions below.

PS Hilary McKay is Friday's author and so by special arrangement gets added on here: she wanted to nominate Elizabeth Goudge's The Dean's Watch - a book I read many years ago and can remember nothing about, but will go and look up now.



















37 comments:

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    1. Definitely a good idea - I think you'll love it Lucy.

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  2. I've so much enjoyed this, Moira. Good blend of shared choices and books new to me. Had never heard of Francesca Kay or Michael David Anthony. I must try them.
    Excellent Women is my other favourite Barbara Pym!

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    1. Yes, wasn't that fun? And I love Glass of Blessings too. So many good books out there...

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  3. I was going to say 'Why no Trollope?', but you might think me rude, and Christine has included him. Interesting that you each selected a different Pym. It's always fascinating to see the differences and similarities between you. I'm not at all sure that I could come up with a list of eight books set in cathedrals or churches

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    1. I did think about Trollope, but decided I preferred his political novels to his church ones. It was a really interesting exercise choosing the books, I enjoyed the process very much.

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  4. Oh these are good choices, Moira.I love the Sayers and the Crispin. :-) I'm also thinking of P.D. James' A Taste For Death. That one has some very important church scenes...

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    1. Thanks Margot, the James book is a great addition to the list.

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  5. Both your lists are splendid. I am another admirer of The Nebuly Coat.

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    1. Thanks Martin - it's such a good book, I wish it was better-known.

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  6. Fine list(s), and I see both you and Christine included two of my favorites - The Nine Tailors and Holy Disorders. Let me suggest one more which actually takes place in a convent rather than a church - "The Religious Body," by Catherine Aird, the first of her Calleshire Chronicles mysteries featuring Inspector C. D. Sloan. Thanks to you both for the other suggestions!

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    1. Oh yes, I'd forgotten that one Les, a very good book. Perhaps another list is coming, of books set on convents and monasteries.

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  7. Great list Moira. Like Margot, I immediately thought of the PD James. Would NAME OF THE ROSE count? How about Colin Dexter's SERVICE FOR ALL THE DEAD or William Golding's THE SPIRE?

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    1. Great suggestions Sergio. And as I say above, maybe another list for convents and monasteries.

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  8. Two obvious omissions are Golding's The Spire and Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. You specify "church or cathedral", do monasteries and convents count? If so Eco's The Name of the Rose, Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner that Held Them and umpteen Gothic novels - especially The Monk - are in the running too.

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    1. ...and J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country.

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    2. I love A Month in the Country, I definitely would have had that in my list if I'd remembered. Edwin Drood I considered but didn't use. And more additions for a convent and monastery list, thanks.

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  9. Some great choices. I love cathedral/church novels. I've already suggested Kate Charles' novels on Christine's blog. Glad to see that between you, you've chosen my two favourite Pyms. Sayers & Crispin also great favourites.

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    1. Thanks Lyn - yes I read a few of Kate Charles' books and really liked them, I loved that atmosphere of a Longon parish.

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  10. The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge.

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  11. Moira: I would put Ken Follett's books on the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral - Pillars of the Earth and World Without End at the top.

    Of the P.D. James books involving religious themes I would put Death in Holy Orders at the top.

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    1. Oh yes, books about building a cathedral should certainly be on there! And the title of that PD James book seems to earn a place...

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  12. A nice list, Moira. I have The Nebuly Coat and The Becket Factor, both based on your recommendation. Haven't read either yet, but someday. Some good suggestions in the comments, too.

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    1. Yes Tracy - I need to look up some of these suggestions.

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  13. I would also suggest Murder in a Cathedral by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Her books are such good fun romps--very solid detective novels with a bonus of skewering various institutions (from the cathedral to the university to the British club) and arenas (publishing, politics, etc.).

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion Bev, I don't know that one and will certainly look out for it.

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  14. Moira, this is a very good list of books. I have read church and cathedral settings in the thriller and espionage novels of Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson).

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    1. That's interesting Prashant - I wouldn't expect to find church settings there, I must look them up and find out which ones I should be looking for.

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  15. I've been racking my brains trying to think of a few I've encountered in my reading. Victoria Dougherty's The Bone Church was one and I'm pretty sure I've come across them in Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor series.

    More recently Torquil MacLeod's Meet Me in Malmo opens with a girl falling (or pushed?) from the top of Durham Cathedral.

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    1. Nice additions, and I'm glad of the reminder of the Malmo book: I liked the sound of that after reading your review (having been a student who survived Durham!) and I do want to read it.

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  16. You're responsible for my reading and loving the Nebuly Coat. Happy to see A Month in the Country mentioned too - definitely on my list as a church with real personality.

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    1. Oh good, so glad you loved Nebuly. And I was very glad Chrissie mentioned the Carr book, I didn't think of it but should have.

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  17. Given my recent reading, I'd also like to suggest Noel Streatfeild's Parson's Nine and her fictionalised biography, A Vicarage Family - full of saintly vicars, unruly children and congregations and general parish life, both about the years leading up to, and around the First World War.

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    1. I don't think I've read Parson's Nine - I must look it up. The Vicarage Family I read when I was young enough just to be sorry it wasn't another fictional one - I should give it another go.

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  18. Catherine Fox's two novels (so far) set around the fictional Lindchester Cathedral - Acts and Omissions, and Unseen Things Above. They were written as a blogged serial, in Trollopian fashion, and have now been published. Her writing can make me snort in a very unseemly fashion and then be moved to tears within two pages.

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    1. Oh great addition to the list! I read one of her books - Angels and Men - a while back, and have Acts and Omissions lined up to read. You are reminding me to move it to the top of the pile...

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