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Hallo again to all.

The robust industry of Vatican-based suspense novels and screenplays — Angels and Demons is much at the cineplex and 'in the air' — set us to wondering about the surprising absence of any Anglican equivalent.

Absolute Truths, Susan HowatchIn the last century and this, innumerable thrillers have been based in and around the Vatican, whether by Malachi Martin, Andrew Greeley, or Dan Brown. Blockbuster novels like The Exorcist take place unmistakably within the context of the Roman Church. Recently The Sword of the Templars, The First Apostle ('A brutal murder! A deadly conspiracy! A secret as old as time itself!') and The Third Revelation — Roman, all — have dominated the shelves of bookshops.

The closest we Anglicans have come to blockbuster status, in terms of suspense novels, may be the Starbridge series by Susan Howatch, whose six novels were much read in the late 1980s and early 90s. But this unevenly-written saga focusses on the characters of individual Anglicans and much less on the Church, writ large. Reaching further back in time, during the golden age of detective fiction, Anglicans could claim a prominent place, with innumerable mysteries featuring murders at vicarages, in choir lofts, or bell towers. Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, and Edmund Crispin were skilful practitioners of the cozy detective story within a very recognizably Anglican context. More recently, PD James, with Death in Holy Orders, places her story within an Anglican monastery cum theological college, coming as close as we know to a novel that occurs within an institutional framework. But what is it that makes the machinery and machinations (whether real or imagined) of Lambeth Palace an unlikely venue for a thriller? Why do Anglican intrigues centre round the parsonage and not the palace?

The silhouette of a very bad monkThe silhouette of a slimmed-down Mrs ProudieAfter the Elizabeth Settlement, it seems, for the most part, that we ceded intrigue — the essential matter of suspense novels — to the Roman Communion, with conspiratorial Jesuits, power-mad cardinals, and corrupt Vatican officials ready to play a part. Especially after the Glorious Revolution of 1689, we Anglicans were left with a more temperate, reformed sensibility that blossomed into the novels of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and later Barbara Pym. (And of course, later, all those murders in vicarages.) Had Charles I and William Laud had prevailed, perhaps we'd have seen a twentieth-century explosion of novels about the schemes and intrigues of various Archbishops of Canterbury, nefarious bishops, and power-mad archdeacons*.

Some of the Vatican-thriller industry may be linked to the Roman Communion as the 'custodian' of the earliest ages of the church. (All those relics! All those secret documents! All those catacombs!) But the Anglican Communion can claim Joseph of Arimathea's arrival in Glastonbury as a mythical starting point for our Church and the arrival of Saint Augustine of Canterbury in the sixth century as a true beginning. That takes us back plenty far for secrets, ciphers, and conspiracy. But rather than create a body of work about dead bodies, we Anglicans ran mad about Arthur and his court, developing an enormous stream of literature from that rich source. (Cue the Lady of Shalott.)

Some of the dearth of Anglican institutional thrillers, if we may call them that, may have to do with that elusive concept of 'national character'. It isn't in the way of Anglo-Saxon Protestants to emote, scheme, rant, and murder. We leave that to the Latin temperament. We go in for orderly queues, the cup that cheers but doesn't inebriate, decorous hymns, and keeping calm and carrying on, all of which leads to Excellent Women, not St Agatha's Breast.

Or so it seems to us, on this summer afternoon in the northern hemisphere, on an early Sunday after Trinity / Whitsunday / Pentecost. Looking out the window towards our sunny back garden, we can't see a lurking Jesuit anywhere.

See you next week.

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*Or perhaps there would be no Anglican Communion, as we might have merged into the Roman obedience sometime in the nineteenth century.

Last updated: 5 July 2009

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