Between 1991 and 1999 D.M. Greenwood produced a series of 9 ‘Ecclesiastical Whodunnits’ centred on the character of Deaconess Theodora Braithwaite. D.M. Greenwood is in fact Dr Diane M. Greenwood who, after teaching classics, took a position as what she described as a ‘low-level ecclesiastical civil servant’ and went on to write the Theodora Braithwaite series which comprises the following titles….

1. Clerical Errors (1991)
2. Unholy Ghosts (1991)
3. Idol Bones (1993)
4. Holy Terrors (1994)
5. Every Deadly Sin (1995)
6. Mortal Spoils (1996)
7. Heavenly Vices (1997)
8. A Grave Disturbance (1998)
9. Foolish Ways (1999)

Now the tradition of the ecclesiastical mystery – which I will loosely define as a mystery having as its principal background a church or theological setting or a priest of some variety as a principal character  – is an old one (one only has to think of Chesterton) and there are a number of writers who have practised the craft in the past few decades. There are also writers – P.D. James is a prominent example – for whom theology is an important consideration, even if the principal background of a particular book is not ecclesiastical. In this company it must immediately be admitted that there many ways in which the work of D.M Greenwood does not shine: in the first place her plotting is never anything special and sometimes much less than that. Her characterisation tends to the repetitive. She lacks the ability to create an interesting romance which one often finds in the work of one of her main peers, Kate Charles. No individual book really stands out (although the first is much the worse and the series should not be judged from it). Given all this why on earth should I wish to spend time considering her opus? What gives it distinction? Very simply the overwhelming sense that the author is seriously engaged with her subject; that she is really wrestling with the theological and political problems that she, through Theodora, sets herself. It should be obvious to anyone who reads these books that D.M.Greenwood really cares about the issues she deals with. I do not mean to suggest that other writers in this tradition are insincere: it just seems to me that in these books there is a real intellectual, perhaps spiritual, struggle going on and Greenwood is perfectly prepared to show this struggle. As an atheist with a considerable interest in theology and theological matters I find this fascinating. And I want to argue that rather than ‘Ecclesiastical Whodunnit’ – the traditional pigeon whole which appears on the cover of the books – a more appropriate appellation would be ‘Theological Mystery’.

What then is the root problem with which Greenwood grapples in these books? In a phrase it is the problem of power. This is a gross simplification, but the issue to which Greenwood returns again and again is how a Church (and I should have said that these books are concerned with the Church of England) can be both a political power and retain its spirituality? The answer which is returned is, by and large, that it cannot. However Greenwood is far too much of a realist to suggest that one can simply dissolve an institution with the history and social and political status of the CofE. And it would be quite wrong to imply that Greenwood’s writing is politically radical. It would probably be more accurate to say that in her vision power corrupts because it is human. At the end of Mortal Spoils, Geoffrey Brighouse (Theodora’s vicar and one of Braithwaite’s ‘good’ characters) preaches a sermon (her books usually end in sermons or religious ceremonies which allow her to bring everything together)…..

‘Political power,’ Geoffrey continued, ‘is imposed from without, spiritual power comes from within. Political power rests ultimately on force and fear; fear that we shall lose something precious to us. But mortal spoils cannot save us. What can be taken from us was never ours, never precious or worthy in the first place. Religious power, on the other hand, working within our very souls, stems from God alone, Who is closer to us than our own skin.’……

‘The political life, the life of the secular world, is the life which builds up the ego from the outside, which tempts us to define ourselves by our talents or possessions or place, by the amount of fear we can inspire in others, by the number of people we can coerce. The religious life is the steady effort to erode that grasping ego, from the inside, through the life of prayer and discipline. It is the Church’s task to teach us how to live that religious life. It is the Church’s only task; it is only the Church’s task.’

This is an excellent quote not only because it goes to the heart of the argument which runs through Greenwood’s canon, but also because it is an example of the impassioned, committed writing which I am claiming as their chief, and highly distinctive, feature. One has a palpable sense of the author pouring herself into this passage; it is quite impossible to believe that this is not in fact her own view.

A further feature of this passage, and of many similar passages in Greenwood’s work, is that it engages me intellectually. And this again is something of a rare feature in mysteries, or at least in mysteries of the mild (I avoid the dreaded cozy word) British type. Part of the purpose of making this a general discussion of Greenwood’s work rather than a series of conventional reviews is precisely because I would like to engage with some of those arguments. So what, from the point of view of a leftist atheist, are we to make of this passage? It is a strange mix. ‘Political power rests ultimately on force and fear’ – this sounds almost Marxist, if not Leninist – “The  history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” (The Communist Manifesto) etc.. It is interesting that Greenwood’s work receives a positive review on the Conservative History Review blog (http://conservativehistory.blogspot.com/2008/11/clerical-detective.html). And I can see why the dismissal of human endeavour, the sour view of human nature, would appeal to right-wing thinkers. However I am not at all sure that this is what Greenwood is in fact arguing for: certainly there are plenty of positive characters in her books. For me it is the issue of ‘power’ which is central in the quote given above and indeed throughout the oeuvre. What one can be sure of in Greenwood is that almost any character in a position of power will be, if not utterly venal, at a minimum deeply flawed. Although Theodora advances a theological reason for not wishing to become a vicar, one senses that a deeper level it is her concern that power corrupts which makes her happy to occupy the lowest possible position in the Church hierarchy. And Greenwood is brilliantly scathing about that hierarchy ; if her portrait is even a quarter accurate it is incredible that those within the Church should attach so much importance to position and career. Time and time again we encounter characters who make judgements of others based on the position (and therefore power and status) they hold rather than any innate moral or spiritual qualities. And this seems to me, whatever a Conservative Historian may claim, to be deeply radical. Because it is a fundamental tenet of any good leftist (and I know there are lots of bad ones!) that personal judgements should have nothing to do with a person’s job, status, power, wealth, standing etc. : ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’.

Now I do realise that I am dealing here with only half of Greenwood’s argument – that which concerns her definition of political power. In opposition she wishes to place religious power which is here defined as, centrally, self-abnegation – ‘the steady effort to erode that grasping ego’. Now fairly obviously, for an atheist this is, to be a little blunt, so much twaddle. In the first place, although it is very difficult, it is perfectly possible to engage with the world without seeking power; in fact Theodora herself is constantly doing exactly this. But more fundamentally there are many other alternatives and ways of living than engaging in a struggle for political power! Some of these may not be considered very moral – a life of sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll has nothing to do with either political or spiritual power for instance. But my own life is now not in the least concerned with political power or indeed any public engagement: this is not through choice but as a result of illness, but be that as it may I am perfectly able to abjure public life without becoming religious. The either/or which is posed in the quotation above is fundamentally false.

A further problem which I have is the denigration of the ego. Now I am not sure as to the extent to which Greenwood is using the term in a Freudian sense, but would tend to think that she is referring to a more generalised definition of the individual personality. And here she would seem to imply that it is necessarily ‘grasping’ and seeking power. I find this absurdly reductive. The human personality and condition are a great deal more complex and interesting than that. Finally we have the definite anti-materialism – ‘What can be taken from us was never ours, never precious or worthy in the first place.’. Once again I am forced to say that I find this almost ridiculous. I have a considerable number of possessions which I consider precious and am not in least concerned as to whether they are worthy. Whether anything should be considered ‘ours’ is a fascinating point since another interpretation would be that there should be no private property! But the sermon’s argument only makes any kind of sense if one believes in the soul and everlasting life: for an atheist whose concerns are solely concerned with this life and our ‘summer of a dormouse’ they are, however fascinating, largely meaningless.

All of which should not be taken to mean that I do find the arguments engrossing and engaging as the foregoing discussion will hopefully have demonstrated. But it is time to return to the books. Clerical Errors is an uncertain start. In the first place the lead character is not Theodora but Julia Smith a young Australian who takes the part of a Ngaio Marsh colonial ingenue. Greenwood is no Marsh however and Julia is an uninteresting character. The plot is an especially absurd one, featuring drug smuggling which is way out of Greenwood’s experience and range, and there is a vastly annoying Buddhist and some sub-Jilly Cooper stuff about horses (which would seem to be Greenwood’s other passion as they pop up in several other books). The most important feature is the introduction of that Greenwood archetype the ambitious power-hungry clergyman – here Canon Wheeler. In many ways those new to Greenwood would do better to skip this book altogether and begin with her second – Unholy Ghosts. Horses play a prominent role here too but this is very much better book. For a start Theodora is firmly ensconced as the central character and she is vital to the series’ attractiveness. The plot is adequate and much more within Greenwood’s terrain and there is a nice portrait of a decaying aristocratic family and the Norfolk landscape within which the book is set. In Idol Bones Greenwood returns to a Cathedral Close (also the setting for Clerical Errors and later A Grave Disturbance). Certainly this is a much better book than Clerical Errors and Greenwood’s portrait of another loathsome church dignitary – Dean Vincent Stream – is now highly competent. She is really finding her voice. However I have to admit that all the Cathedral Close novels always leave me a little dissatisfied – whether this is because there are a considerable number of excellent mystery examples, or because I am such a confirmed Trollopian I am not sure.

Whatever the case, in Holy Terrors Greenwood moves to London and produces a plot which centres on two schools, a private girl’s one and a failing comprehensive, and the theft of religious icons. In fact this latter plot is another which is very over-the-top but Greenwood’s treatment of the two schools is interesting and she demonstrates in the clearest manner to date her brilliant ear for nonsensical jargon. It is with Every Deadly Sin however that the series finally moves into absolutely top gear. The setting is St Sylvan’s at Rest, an Anglican retreat, which is under threat of closure from the Church authorities, eager to realise its cash potential. This setting and the assemblage of characters, of varying shades of Christianity and opinion, allow Greenwood to really engage with her ruling passion – the nature of spirituality and its relation to the CofE. There is also a concentrated discussion of the position of women within the church. Most pleasingly from a mystery point of view, the motive for the crime is tied into the books theme; it is much the best plot to date and arguably of the entire series. There is also an appearance of a group of New Age Travellers/simple lifers (a group of the latter appeared in Clerical Errors): Greenwood may have a somewhat romantic view of this lifestyle, but it allows her to contrast their mode of living with that of the ordained. As Martha Broad (one of a considerable number of positive characters in this book) reflects right at the end of this contrast and the life as an ordained priest which she has recently chosen…

There were other possibilities. Fewer possessions, less oppression, less hierarchy, less struggle, less unkindness, the Reverend the Honourable Martha Broad thought and, for a moment, was almost tempted.

In an earlier passage we also have a simple statement of Theodora’s own position: this is a position which she states (or muses over) on a number of occasions but this is an excellent example. She is engaged on a discussion with a police Inspector who is not a religious man and is trying to understand what drives the characters he is having to deal with….

‘I thought it was a matter of beliefs, what people think and they’re pretty incredible, you’ve got to admit.’

‘No,’ said Theodora. ‘No, not at all. It’s not a matter of beliefs not firstly. Firstly, it’s a matter of doing certain things. People are religious if and when they do different things from unreligious people. Beliefs divide, practises unite.’

By this I think that Theodora means, above all, prayer. Prayer is central to her practise. And after all both she and Greenwood know that there plenty of unreligious people who engage in charitable work etc.. Even so Theodora must know that her statement is deeply misleading: there are plenty of examples within the books themselves of practises causing division – indeed it is differences in practise which seem to above all divide the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical wings of the Church, as Greenwood often amusingly demonstrates. And at a wider historical level the notion is absurd. Raised as I was in a Low Church tradition I was taken as a child by my mother to a Church some miles distant in order to avoid the High Church atmosphere (very literally as incense was involved) of the nearest Church. I have always taken rather a delight in these matters: I remember my godfather, a curate and a delightful man, being deeply affronted by the sight of a stone altar at Walsingham. My favourite cultural example however is in Ken Hughes’ excellent film Cromwell when our eponymous hero is moved to sweep away the various decorations and idols which have been placed in his local church on Laud’s orders ( a whole historical movement summarised in a brilliant couple of minutes). Having said all that, the notion that religion is about practise rather than belief is a fascinating, if probably theologically suspect, one.

The high standard of Heavenly Vices is maintained in Mortal Spoils from which I took my first lengthy quotes. The book is set in the administrative headquarters of the CofE and while the plot is something of a farrago (although it makes nice use of a disappearing body), the setting allows Greenwood plenty of scope for her dissection of the corrupting effects of power, and she presents us with a veritable gallery of corrupt Church dignitaries. There are a couple of specific passages I want to note. First as an example of Greenwood’s wit, which I have rather overlooked…

The word ‘ecumenical’ usually stopped any opposition in debate within the Church; the Archbishop naturally felt it ought to do so outside it. He looked miffed.

This will be doubly funny to Father Ted enthusiasts. I wanted to check for influences but the remarkable thing is that Mortal Spoils was published in 1996 and the ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’ episode (Tentacles of Doom)  first aired on 22nd March 1996. Obviously Greenwood and Linehan were both attuned to a piece of jargon which was very much in the air in both Anglican and Catholic circles at the time.

Mortal Spoils also sees Greenwood really developing Theodora’s character and showing us new sides (including an unwished for jealousy); in one such passage she reflects..

On the other hand she needed, she thirsted for privacy, calmness, place and time which she could order, control as she wished. ‘The feminist ideal which sees power as a struggle for privacy,’ she quoted to herself.

I presume that this is at least in part a reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Ones’s Own but there may be a much wider feminist literature on this fascinating contention. Incidentally one of Theodora’s most appealing characteristics is that she has absolutely no time for children (I mean in general – the question of her own never arises).

Heavenly Vices is the third of this central trilogy of a high standard. Once again the setting – this time a decaying theological college somewhere near Oxford – is absolutely ideal for Greenwood to develop her themes. Theodora is there primarily to pursue her researches into Greenwood’s fictional Victorian theologian T. H. Newcome but gets drawn into contemporary problems including that of the college’s future. The notion of practise which I discussed earlier is here restated when Theodora discusses Cardinal Newman and George Eliot and what they had in common…

‘Work, the idea that practice is what counts. The Cardinal thinks of the spiritual life as work, Eliot of the moral life in the same terms. They are both far removed from our present-day delight in theory which is quite a different thing.’

Given Theodora’s own belief in practise and work it is not surprising that she finds certain Victorians (one should be careful here) so appealing, even if a rude surprise regarding Newcome awaits her. Equally this is where I am furthest in sympathy from her, as I am quite unable to discern any redeeming moral or political qualities in work per se. No doubt it suits some people; for many more it is a vast burden, and the myth that it is desirable is one propagated for obvious reasons by apologists for capitalism (which of course many Victorians were).

A Grave Disturbance is something of a backwards step as Greenwood returns again to a Cathedral Close setting. The plot is uninteresting and Greenwood’s excursion into the lives of a local ‘rough’ family unfortunate. Nonetheless there are points of interest. The following is a delightful passage which shows how Greenwood’s writing has matured and her perfect ease with her main character developed…

Theodora marvelled that Susan could think that being the provost of a cathedral counted as successful. They didn’t come dimmer, in Theodora’s view. But then, she thought, I can’t carp since it’s not something I’ve ever aimed at. Progress in prayer, improvement of moral sensitivity, control of impulse, these were Theodora’s criteria. Her friends reckoned she was not without her own obtusenesses.

I find the last sentence especially delightful. Among ‘her friends’ are likely to be series readers who by this time will be well aware of Theodora’s ‘obtusenesses’, which include a failure to start to comprehend desires which are not her own – lust, avarice and the desire for power among them. Of course this is true of many of us; indeed I wonder if anyone, with the possible exception of psychoanalysts, can really appreciate other’s desires. This theme is developed when Theodora attends, much against her own inclinations, a ‘Women’s Spirituality Group’. Her first meeting with the group’s leader is not a success…

Theodora and Kate looked at each with simultaneous dislike. Both tried to hide this from themselves and from each other, for the greater good.

Theodora has no time in any case for a separate women’s spirituality as she sees the ‘disciplines of the spiritual life’ as identical for men and women. But the portrayal of the evening is a delightful hard-edged comedy. It is topped however by the magnificently fatuous and utterly wrong-headed address by a Bishop to a group of school-children which forms the book’s ending. Here again we see how Greenwood’s writing has developed because the conveys her fundamental point about what she sees as being wrong with the Church through a very funny piece of satire.

Foolish Ways is a suitably fine ending to the series. Yet again it is let down by its plot (drug smuggling again – why will mystery writers do it?) but in all other aspects it is excellent. The setting is a second-rate Norfolk holiday camp in November which has been selected as the venue for  a diocesan conference. This allows Greenwood to bring together her wonted mix of the good the bad and the ugly. There is a particularly absurd evangelical vicar  who conducts a ridiculous ceremony on the beach at the end of the book. Theodora intones her, Greenwood’s and the series’ final message as she speaks of this ceremony…….

…………….’there’s fooling and there’s fooling. Fooling as talentless shambles, as here. And fooling as showing us Heaven, fooling as showing us that the values we have in the world of ego, ambition, dominance and manipulation, at whatever level of fatuity, are the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven’s. Not, I feel, a lesson we want to learn.’

Theodora’s, and Greenwood’s final message about the Church is pessimistic. But the book’s ending is not – the coda which follows this judgement suggests that life goes on and that individual redemption, at however low a level (indeed preferably at a low level), is quite possible.

In terms of internet resources on Greenwood’s work much the best is the entry in Philip Grosset’s Clerical Detectives site which can be found at http://www.detecs.org/braithwaite.html which anyone interested in her should visit. Grosset has clearly interviewed Greenwood as revealed by this paragraph…

Greenwood’s ecclesiastical experience is apparent in her use of church settings, and this is what makes them so interesting and hard-hitting. Her stories, she said, were “initially triggered by anger” and she takes as her theme the “tension between what the clergy say and what they actually do.” She described her mysteries as “the humour of social comedy” and said she saw “no reason at all to bore the pants off people”.

Personally although there are certainly comic passages and moments I would not describe these books as comic mysteries. Grosset provides a very useful summary of each book (and our judgements are generally reasonably similar I find). Apparently Greenwood stopped the series because she thought she had said all she wanted to say and wished ‘to go out on a high’.

At  http://www.barbara-pym.org/PymishMysteries.html one can find an interesting analysis of Greenwood as a ‘pymish’ writer in the form of a lecture given by Kathy Ackley to the Barbara Pym Society of North America in 2007. The lecture covers a number of writers including some I admire (Aird for instance) but also one I definitely do not (M.C. Beaton)! As I have never read Barbara Pym the discussion as to whether or not any of the writers, including Greenwood, resembles her, passes over my head. However my own view would be that Ackley fails to appreciate the seriousness which is at the heart of Greenwood’s work. This is even more true of an essay by a Geoffrey Kirk which can be found at http://www.trushare.com/16SEP96/SE96WAYL.htm ; Kirk is actually a vicar but his article is a succession of jokes, most of them in-ones which had no meaning for me. To be honest I would tend to call this ‘fooling as shambles’. Certainly he has nothing of real interest to say about Greenwood.

To conclude. The ecclesiastical mysteries of D.M.Greenwood are certainly not distinguished for the quality of their plots, the depth of characterisation or any outstanding compositional qualities. When set against their most immediate comparison point, the work of Kate Charles, they are definitely inferior as mysteries. What they do have, and this is a very rare quality of which I can think of few other examples, is a passionate sense that the writer is genuinely involved with and concerned about the problems she sets herself. I do not mean that she preaches; she is far too humble for that (and as someone says at the end of Heavenly Vices ‘It’s no good preaching’). But she has a set of convictions and she wants to see how she can give a fictional expression to these. Because the convictions are at least interesting, I – approaching the matter from about a different viewpoint as possible – find them intellectually engaging and challenging in a way rarely to be found in mystery writing. I hope that this article has conveyed some of those challenges and the issues to which they give rise. Because of this, if you have a serious interest in matters theological as well as being a mystery fan, I would recommend you seek out the work of D.M. Greenwood. In the final analysis her mysteries are less ecclesiastical than theological – which is the reason for my title. I hope this over-lengthy article has justified its use.

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