Religious Mysteries Provide Puzzles, Perplexities–and Ultimate “Revelation”

By Marlena Thompson


A review of Unholy Orders; Mystery Stories With A Religious Twist. Edited by Serita Stevens. Philadelphia: Intrigue Press, 2000. 285 pp. $24.95.

All of the writers who have contributed to this mystery anthology are masters of the genre–and some are world renowned, including Anne Perry, John Lutz, Nancy Pickard, Rochelle Krich, and Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Dowling Mysteries, which have been made into a popular television series.

Readers will encounter the usual incitements to crime, including several of the seven deadly sins, (which are, according to Catholic tradition, pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust.) Sometimes such motives lead to theft and betrayal. On other occasions, they lead to the deadliest sin of all–murder.

The stories span time, locale, motif, and several faiths. For instance, in “The Reverend Collins’ Visit” by Anne Perry, an Anglican vicar in Victorian England is suspected of theft. “Volo te habere” (I Wish to Have You) by Margaret Frazer involves the interpretation of Church law in medieval Winchester, England. Rhys Bowen’s “The Seal of the Confessional” portrays the moral dilemma of a Catholic priest living on the wild West Coast of Ireland in our own time. In Serita Stevens’s “In a Jewish Vein,” a most unusual member of a Hasidic sect “living” (in a manner of speaking) in modern day Romania wields a mysterious power over those with whom he comes in contact.

Although most of the stories represent relatively well-known denominations of Christianity (most frequently, Catholicism) and two have specifically Jewish themes, other traditions are also depicted. G. Miki Hayden’s, “The Shaman Song” features a 19th century Navajo shaman, and Jacqueline Fiedler’s “Amish Butter,” takes place in the heart of Amish country.

Although no story thematically spotlights Islam, that tradition plays a part, albeit a passive one, in Carolyn Wheat’s moving story, “Remembered Zion,” set in contemporary Eastern Europe. (Although the precise location isn’t named, it is meant to be somewhere in the former Yugoslavia where religious hatreds continue to rage unabated.) In this story, an old Christian woman who witnesses atrocities being perpetrated against her Muslim neighbors recalls a time long ago when she watched a gang of Nazi bullies lead her dearest friend–a Jewish girl-to certain death while a frenzied mob, of which she was a part, cheered them on.

“Widow’s Peak,” by Rochelle Krich, also thematically touches upon the Holocaust. The story opens with Rose, a Holocaust survivor, preparing for the wedding of her granddaughter, Shoshana, a young beauty who looks exactly as Rose did 50 years earlier. The occasion evokes memories of Rose’s own first wedding to a young man called Yossi, who was her groom for just one night before German soldiers seized him. She never saw him again. Though Rochelle had never received proof that Yossi died, a female cousin saw him near death in a concentration camp. According to Jewish law, a woman cannot remarry without proof of her husband’s death. When tangible proof is unavailable, the testimony of two male witnesses is admissible as evidence. But, during the Holocaust rabbis made exceptions, and they accepted her cousin’s statement. Rose remarried.

At the wedding of Rose’s granddaughter Shoshana, fate plays an astonishing–and emotionally devastating–trick by revealing to Rose that Yossi did not in fact die those many years ago. Therefore, Rose’s daughter and granddaughter are not “legitimate” according to Jewish law. However, the story is not really about laws and strictures, but about the depth of human feelings–and, as in Wheat’s “Remembered Zion,” the weight of memories upon the human heart. Rochelle Krich, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, recently revealed that the inspiration for this stirring and sensitively told story was her own discovery that her father had been married before–and that his first wife, Gusta, and their two daughters, her half-sisters, were killed in Auschwitz.

“My world was turned upside down,” Krich admits. “I couldn’t get out of my mind the uncomfortable knowledge that if Gusta hadn’t perished, I wouldn’t exist. Over the years I have thought, again and again, about my father’s first wife and the choice she made: to take her two infant girls with her to Auschwitz rather than leave them to an uncertain fate by entrusting them, blindly, into the care of a Polish gentile family she didn’t know.”

The fictional Rose is also faced with a choice–to reveal her knowledge or to remain silent–a choice that will ever affect the lives of her loved ones. (It is, however, not as soul-searing a choice as the one Krich’s father’s first wife was forced to make.)

The stories in this anthology are universally excellent. Though some are lighter in tone than others, all are thought- and faith-provoking. This ecumenical collection would make an especially fine holiday gift for a member of an interfaith family


About Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at