It was not just on any street in London that I was due to meet the crime novelist Fiorella de Maria. Our rendezvous was at Baker Street, no less: home to the most famous literary detective of all time, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
De Maria has published nine novels to date, with her 10th novel due to be released this winter. She spoke to the Register Oct. 30.
Three of her novels are crime fiction; they feature her Benedictine monk-turned-detective, Father Gabriel. Do we need yet another priest detective, after G.K. Chesterton’s incomparable Father Brown? De Maria is prepared for the question.
“Always room for one more,” she laughs. “There are a few priest-detectives, and it is easy to see why: Priests traditionally had a certain authority in Britain, whilst very definitely not being part of the establishment. Their role as authoritative outsiders makes them good detectives. The pastoral role of the priest allows for certain insights into human behavior, which certainly helps Father Gabriel. It makes it easier for him to work out when a person is lying, for example, but his concern for the souls of those involved makes him a sensitive seeker of the truth. He is always aware of the seriousness of exposing a man’s crime and sending him to the gallows and of the need to help the killer prepare to meet his Maker.”
Creating Crime Fiction
Having written historical and literary fiction, what was it about crime fiction that attracted her? Again, she laughs: “Crime fiction is my dirty little secret. I have been obsessed with murder mysteries since I was a child. I think I was 7 when I read my first Sherlock Holmes story — The Speckled Band — and I scared myself half to death! Ever since then, I have read crime fiction avidly: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Ellis Peters. … When the idea of creating my own fictional detective came to me, I just ran with it.”
And she has not stopped running since. The character of Father Gabriel first appeared in The Sleeping Witness (2017), then again in The Vanishing Woman (2018), and now in de Maria’s latest mystery See No Evil (2020). It seems that wherever this monk turns up, murder soon follows. Interestingly, the books are set in England just after the Second World War.
Why this period?
“It provides fertile ground for a mystery series because so many people had traumas or secrets from the war years to hide, and it was also a time when thousands of men were returning home and thousands of refugees were trying to find homes,” explained the author, before adding, “There are all the ingredients here for human drama and intrigue.”
As a genre crime fiction continues to appear in all shapes and sizes: period and contemporary mysteries, “Whodunit?” or “How done it?” gifted amateur detectives or the novels concerned with police procedural. This is a genre that, since its inception with the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle, has only grown in popularity. Today, crime fiction regularly tops fiction best-seller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Father Gabriel series has been well received by critics and has found a ready audience, eager to learn the identity of the murderer. But why does crime fiction continue to exert this perennial attraction?
“I think it comes down to the fact that everyone likes a mystery and an intellectual challenge,” the author says. “A good mystery story should fill that need: giving the reader clues, misdirecting them, playing with the reader’s thought processes. Besides the puzzle, though, there is the drama of a shocking event, the conflicts between the major players, with their inevitable skeletons in the cupboard. Then, at the center of it all, there is the detective, his methods, personality and — sometimes — his own mysterious past.”
The Unusual Suspects
The Father Gabriel mystery series is part of the classic “whodunit” tradition of detective fiction, with Agatha Christie its most widely read exponent, something this author is happy to acknowledge: “Christie continues to have a huge influence on crime writers: a small list of potential suspects, an often-isolated environment, such as a stately home, the denouement. Where I hope I have been able to carve out my own niche is by making the books a little more reflective. The mystery is there, the false trails, the buried secrets, but I also want readers to consider the horror inflicted on a community by a violent crime and the terrible reality of an individual facing execution. None of my books end with Miss Marple-style tea parties on the lawn and business as usual. It is never business as usual after bloodshed.”
In light of the tradition within which she works, can we expect as long a running series as say Christie’s Marple or Hercule Poirot (another of her clever sleuths) stories turned out to be? “One of the advantages of writing a series is that I can develop the central characters a little further than in a single book. But I am trying to avoid the weird situation you get in a lot of murder mysteries where there are dozens of murders in the same place. If there were as many murders in Oxford as you get in the Inspector Morse crime series, then the whole town would be under curfew! Unfortunately, poor Father Gabriel has such a talent for getting himself into hot water that he spends more time away from his monastery than in it.”
She adds intriguingly, “He is a more complex character than he may appear when we first meet him daydreaming in the monastic library; and, by the third book, the reader knows a little more about the tragedy in his past that led him to the religious life.”
Of course, crime fiction has another famous monk detective, namely, Brother Cadfael, a medieval Benedictine who is the protagonist in the novels by Ellis Peters. But, beyond a superficial resemblance, de Maria views Father Gabriel and his mysteries as being quite distinct from Brother Cadfael.
“The big problem with Brother Cadfael is that he was obviously created by a non-Catholic. In spite of the author’s meticulous research and sympathy toward Catholicism, there are moments when his behavior just doesn’t ring true,” de Maria explains
A Catholic Mystery
Which poses the question about the whole concept of a “Catholic” crime writer: Should Catholics be writing fiction about people murdering each other?
De Maria pretends to groan before saying: “Unfortunately, I think that there is a tendency within the world of Catholic publishing and writing to feel that good Catholic authors should write sanitized little ‘propaganda’ pieces about sweet old ladies baking cakes for the parish fete.” She then points out that, “All creative writing involves the resolution of some kind of conflict, and it’s difficult to see how a writer can be expected to create a conflict situation involving church raffles! Creative writing — and that includes crime fiction — is an incredible way to explore the mysteries of the human condition and to seek the Truth.” She then echoes an earlier Catholic crime writer, Chesterton, when she says, “Certainly, the use of fiction to celebrate the Truth is a paradox, but it’s a glorious paradox!”
“I get the sense,” de Maria says, “that crime/mystery is generally regarded as one step up from airport trash, if you’ll forgive the expression, and sometimes not even one step.” Nevertheless, she acknowledges: “I have mixed feelings about the way crime fiction is perceived because, speaking as a writer, I do not find crime fiction satisfying from a creative point of view, in that it is still fairly formulaic as a genre. There are certain conventions a writer is expected to adhere to—e.g., not giving away too much information right at the end” before he mystery is solved. “However, there is considerable skill involved in creating a mystery that is complex enough to keep the reader guessing, but straightforward enough to appear very obvious after the denouement. I certainly enjoy the intellectual challenge of thinking up a mystery.”
So what is the trick to constructing a whodunit? Of that de Maria is in no doubt: “A relatable detective and supporting characters. If the permanent characters — detective and sidekick — are off-putting, it can wreck even a good mystery.” She then added, “In terms of the conventions — the limited number of suspects, the crime, the red herrings, the second crime, the denouement — the best way to become comfortable and skilled in writing the genre is to read crime fiction obsessively. I also find that I have to plan a whodunit very carefully. With my other novels, I don’t tend to write plans, just character and plot sketches, because I like the adventure of plunging into the unknown. But a murder mystery needs a fairly detailed plan to ensure that all the clues come out in the right order and avoid plot holes.”
De Maria lives just outside London with her husband and their four children. She was born in Italy of Maltese parents but grew up in rural Wiltshire. After attending Cambridge University, where she received a B.A. in English literature and an M.Phil. in Renaissance literature, she took to writing novels. A winner of the National Book Prize of Malta, she has published nine novels with Ignatius Press, specializing in historical and crime fiction. She also co-wrote the radio play The Last Confession of Sherlock Holmes, in which Conan Doyle’s great detective and Chesterton’s Father Brown finally meet and a surprising conclusion ensues.
If that were not enough, this author is also a respected bioethicist who has delivered papers at conferences all over the world as well as appearing regularly on media networks such as the BBC and EWTN. Writing as Fiorella Nash, her nonfiction book The Abolition of Woman, How Radical Feminism Is Betraying Women (2018), also published by Ignatius Press, has been described by former Cosmopolitan journalist Sue Ellen Browder as “a daring revelation of the shocking exploitation of women around the world.”
What advice would this multitalented author give an aspiring writer, especially any aspiring crime writer? “Choose a period and location that really works for you as a writer. I decided to set my crime novels in Wiltshire because it is the county where I grew up and chose the period immediately after the Second World War because I wanted to focus on buried secrets and crimes associated with the war, such as stolen artwork and the ambiguous role of the Special Operations Executive.”
With that mystery solved, or at least partially, and as the crowds of shoppers and tourists moved around us, there was a further question hanging in the air: What is it like for a crime novelist to be on a London street that has been so identified with the genre?
“I love Baker Street, though part of me always finds it a bit disappointing, because in my head it’s a Victorian street with gas lights and men in top hats — or deerstalker hats!”
Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Conan Doyle, famously turned his talents to trying to solve some real-life crimes. Does de Maria ever feel the need to solve London’s many mysteries? “I’d enjoy the intellectual challenge of trying to solve a real mystery,” she says, before quickly adding, “I’m incredibly squeamish, though — so you wouldn’t find me within a radius of 10 miles of a corpse!”
And, with that, we say goodbye. Without a top hat or deerstalker, Sherlock’s hat of choice, anywhere in sight, de Maria disappears into the crowds swarming around Baker Street. The game is afoot once more as she heads off to solve yet another mystery with her monastic sleuth.
K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent