Book Review: The Religious Body by Catherine Aird (1966)

Catherine Aird is the pen name of author Kinn Hamilton McIntosh, who was born on June 20, 1930, in Huddersfield, England. Aird is a British crime fiction writer best known for her series of novels featuring Detective Inspector C.D. Sloan. Her first novel, The Religious Body, was published in 1966 and introduced the character of Sloan. Aird has written over 20 novels in the series, with the latest one being Inheritance Tracks, published in 2019. Aird’s books are known for their wit, intricate plotting, and attention to detail. She has been nominated for several awards, including the Edgar Award, and her novels have been translated into many languages.

A nun dead at the bottom of the stairs of a convent cellar. The only clue left behind for Detective Inspector Sloan is a bloody thumbprint on the Gradual.

The deceased, Sister Anne, seems an unlikely candidate for murder. Having lived in the convent for over 20 years with no discernible enemies, wealth, or clandestine love affairs, Detective Inspector Sloan knows this will be a complex case. He is neither aided nor hindered by Sister Anne’s fellow nuns, who hear nothing, see nothing, and seek nothing apart from closeness with god. He is thrown into this otherworldly community of women with traditions, rituals, language, and philosophies he has trouble deciphering. While they wish to find the murderer, they grieve little for the passing of their Sister.

Sister Anne’s head had been smashed in with a large, heavy object, and then she was moved to a closet and thrown down the cellar steps. A gruesome and brutal murder in which it is difficult to believe any of these nuns are capable. With Sister Anne’s body only a few hours old, she receives her first visitor at the convent in over 20 years, her cousin Harold Cartwright.

Harold Cartwright owns a large carbon business and wishes to discuss his father’s declining health and how the company assets will be settled among his two heirs: Harold and Sister Anne. Since Sister Anne predeceased her uncle, his vast company and its assets are now solely Harold Cartwright.

While Sister Anne’s fortune is news to Detective Inspector Sloan, he learns that her inheritance was well-known amongst the community of sisters, and she had promised to fund a new cloister and mission work. Detective Inspector Sloan must now determine if her wealth motivated her murder.

He is later shocked to learn that Sister Anne died earlier than initially thought after a thorough examination by the coroner. She died right after dinner, and despite her sisters saying they saw her at Vespers, she was already dead. Was it the murderer, they say, dressed as Sister Anne?

Unable to fathom how someone could have impersonated Sister Anne, Detective Inspector Sloan is told by the Mother Superior that an extra habit is left out in case someone gets caught in the rain. When he goes to look at this different set of clothing, it is missing.

The boy’s school next door is burning a Guy Fawkes in effigy for bonfire night. Detective Inspector Sloan watches the burning with disinterest until he notices the model wearing Sister Anne’s missing glasses and the extra habit. He runs over, saves it from the fire, and begins to question all of the boys; he is startled to find Harold Cartwright amongst the bystanders and wonders what he is doing there.

Detective Inspector Sloan is troubled by the nun’s effigy and endeavors to discover how they broke into the Convent on the night of Sister Anne’s murder. The school’s headmaster, embarrassed by his pupils, insists there’s no bad blood between the two institutions and says he will bring the three boys to apologize to the Mother Prioress for their misdeeds. Unable to round up the three boys, he gets two of them to the convent to apologize, saying he’ll bring the third boy later when he is at the school.

The Mother Prioress doesn’t have to wait long because the third boy is found strangled on the convent’s grounds. Despite saying he hadn’t seen something about Sister Anne’s murder- he had, and it’s up to Detective Inspector Sloan to figure out what happened that night before there’s a third murder.

I found this book thoroughly engrossing and was completely surprised by who committed the murders. I had my theory but was totally off track, so the reveal was thrilling. Catherine Aird is the closest successor to plotting, cleverly hiding clues in plain sight to Agatha Christie that I have ever read. You have all of the information to solve the murder, and it’s all right there slipped in during conversations, mundane details, and offhand comments. A murder so deceptively simple that once it was revealed, I just shook my head. Maybe you’re cleverer than me and will spot it right away.

Overall, I found Aird’s writing style very readable, where you begin and in the blink of an eye, you’ve read 100 pages. The setting and language of Convents and nuns were disorienting to Detective Inspector Sloan and a little bit to me- but not in a frustrating way, just in an I fell head-first into a world I’m unfamiliar with, and now I’m trying not to sink. Having Detective Inspector Sloan also be a fish out of water made it easy for Aird to explain concepts unfamiliar to many readers.

With the murder being set in a convent, you’d think the religious characters would pontificate on the nature of God or Jesus. Still, the book wasn’t too interested in pushing a Christian message or agenda. It is, first and foremost, a mystery, and the characters live in a religious world. Still, I wouldn’t classify this as more spiritual than a person going to an old cathedral and learning about it. Some terms and history are outside most people’s everyday language, but that isn’t to the point that the story gets stymied. You might disagree, and if you’re not a fan of anything religious in your mysteries, I would skip this book and try one of her other novels.

My criticisms are few: transitions between “scenes” in the book were often abrupt, and the characterization of Detective Inspector Sloan and the other police figures was a little broad and flimsy. However, I am sure their characterization will grow in successive books. I was a little taken aback that for a police procedural, we learn little about how Detective Inspector comes to his conclusions, especially at the end, but then the big reveal wouldn’t be so splashy. If a little more insight into how Detective Inspector Sloan interprets clues, the police procedural aspect of the book would be more vital.

I highly recommend this book to readers who are fans of Agatha Christie, whodunnits, and police procedurals. This might also appeal to you if you like locked room mysteries or Christian iconography. You can get a copy of The Religious Body from Amazon here.


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