10.3.13

Sister Carol Anne O'Marie's Death Takes Up a Collection


What better way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day than to take a break with a mystery novel that features the holiday? Although Lee Harris’s The Saint Patrick’s Day Murder, Janet Evanovich’s Plum Lucky, Leslie Meier’s St. Patrick’s Day Murder, and Janet Elaine Smith’s In St. Patrick’s Custody are all good choices, one of the best St. Patrick’s Day mysteries is Sister Carol Anne O’Marie’s Death Takes Up a Collection.

O’Marie wrote 11 Sister Mary Helen mysteries between 1984 and 2006. A nun and mystery novelist, O’Marie also worked as a teacher, principal, mother superior, and newspaper editor. Like G. K. Chesterton, Ellis Peters, and Anne Perry (see my blogs on the Father Brown stories, Monk’s-Hood, and A Christmas Secret), O’Marie used a religious figure as her sleuth.

Death Takes Up a Collection, the 8th Sister Mary Helen book, begins the day before St. Patrick’s Day. Sister Mary Helen and Sister Eileen, both nuns in their late seventies, take a loaf of Irish bread to Monsignor Joseph Higgins, one of the benefactors of their college. Their visit interrupts an emergency meeting of the church council. The nuns are invited to tea and the cook cuts up soda bread for all to eat. The following day the Monsignor dies of poisoning. Prime suspects in the murder are the council members, the rectory cook, as well as the two nuns. While examining the case, Sister Mary Helen and Sister Eileen discover that the Monsignor has had an affair and that he has stolen money from the parish.

As a religious mystery, Death Take Up a Collection provides both a secular and divine perspective on crime and justice. It is no coincidence that the setting for the murder mystery is St Patrick’s Day, a religious feast associated with a mystery (the Holy Trinity). And in this season of Lent, Sister Mary Helen views the Monsignor’s failings through the eyes of the merciful Christ. She brings an “un-worldly wise perception from the convent to the crime scene” (Talburt 1999, 383).

Death Takes Up a Collection is a light, cozy novel. “What distinguishes Sister Carol Anne’s writing from that of a handful of others whose sleuths have been religious,” claims Joy Horowitz in a New York Times’s article, “is not so much twists of plot or hair-raising encounters but her sense of humor and her ability to make readers care about her characters, particularly Sister Mary Helen.” Indeed Sister Mary Helen’s geniality and her good-natured personality make her a particularly engaging protagonist. Her view of life, Spencer points out, “is a running monologue of one-liners, and these provide some of the most delightful moments in the book” (1989, 158). Sister Mary Helen’s close friendship with Sister Eileen is a refreshing counterpoint to the criminal events in the novel. A literary descendent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Sister Mary Helen is a female amateur sleuth who roots the novel in domestic details.

Catholics, in particular, will recognize the idiosyncrasies of their fellow practitioners and smile as O’Marie pokes gentle fun at them. A life-long nun, she brings an insider’s knowledge to the religious people she writes about. In doing so, she humanizes them. “If a goal of the ministerial mystery,” observes Spencer, “has been to present the cleric as fully human, as not-other to the rest of the characters and by reference and reflection to the rest of humanity, the nuns . . . are charmingly human” (1989, 160).

O’Marie believes that “the murder mystery has become today’s morality play” and that “truth and righteousness prevail in the end.” Anyone who enjoys old-fashioned mysteries in which certainties prevail, will love this religious mystery story.

O’Marie, Carol Anne. Death Takes Up a Collection. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998.

Spencer, William David. “Sister O’Marie’s Sister Helen: Detective or Detective Novel Directory?” In Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1989.

Talburt, Nancy Ellen. “Religion.” In The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert, 383-84. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.