Series: Sloan & Crosby #1
Published by Open Road Media on May 5, 2015 (originally published in 1966)
Genres: British mystery, Cozy Mystery
Source: the publisher through NetGalley
Also in this series: Henrietta Who?
Also by this author: 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.
Religious Body introduces the sophisticated Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan along with his eager and trustworthy sidekick, Detective Constable Crosby, and the acerbic Superintendent Leeyes in a mystery of holy proportions that will have readers guessing until the last page.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
Catherine Aird’s debut novel, The Religious Body, is a finely-crafted mystery in the best British tradition. First published in 1966, the book introduces her detectives, the quietly dogged Inspector Sloan and his insouciant sidekick Crosby. Aird’s trademark dry wit and fine sense of irony are already evident, and the book shows none of the common signs of a first novel. Aird writes with assurance and skill; her voice is distinctive but understated.
Although it’s set in a convent, The Religious Body is not a typical closed-circle-of-suspects mystery. Sloan has to consider the possibility of an outsider having gotten in, and there’s at least one of those with a motive for killing one of the Sisters. Things become more complicated when the students of the local agricultural college burn a “guy” dressed in a nun’s habit on Bonfire Night. There are several unexpected twists, red herrings, and plausible suspects before the mystery is solved — and the ending managed to surprise me the first time I read the book.
Investigating a crime within a convent presents some unusual challenges, but Sloan is up to the job; he is methodical, observant, quietly intelligent, and tenacious, and has that quality of imagination so necessary in a good detective. Crosby, on the other hand, while fine at meticulously going over the ground for clues or driving the police car (provided you’re in a hurry), is pretty useless at observation and even worse at drawing conclusions – he provides comic relief as well as brawn. We also meet Sloan’s boss, Superintendent Leeyes, a forceful, bombastic man who is not as intelligent as he thinks he is, as well as the rest of the series’ recurring police characters, the pathologist Dr. Dabbe and Dyson the photographer and his assistant.
One of the things I like best about Aird, as with many writers within the classic British tradition, is that she plays fair with the reader. Aird doesn’t always reveal all of Sloan’s reasoning and conclusions, particularly just before the denouement, but as a reader, I’m privy to all the same information and clues he has. If Aird still manages to surprise me with whodunnit – and she often does – it’s a tribute to her skill as a writer.
I highly recommend The Religious Body, and Aird in general, to fans of Agatha Christie and other traditional British mystery writers. From this first book onward, her plots are inventive, her detective is quietly appealing, her settings are delightful, and her writing style is engaging. I’ve never understood why she isn’t better known and appreciated on this side of the pond. If you’ve never read her books, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Religious Body – and don’t stop there. There are at least 25 books in the Sloan and Crosby series, and one standalone mystery.
NOTE: Open Road Media has recently released the first 17 Sloan mysteries as ebooks. Print reissues of some of the early books are available from Rue Morgue Press, while Aird’s more recent works are published by Allison and Busby (UK) and Minotaur (US).
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Clean Sweep ARC Challenge (May 2015)
- Cruisin' Thru the Cozies 2015