Since I read a variety of types of mysteries, for me, some are all about the mystery and action and others more about the characters and setting. Of course the best have a good balance of the two, but depending on mood I like both sorts. I must have read Dame Antonia Fraser's first Jemima Shore mystery, Quiet as a Nun, back when W.W. Norton first reissued several of the books in the series (only two of them are in print now?)--the copyright/reissue date in my book is 1997, so it's been quite a while and rereading it now was pretty much like reading it afresh for the very first time. Antonia Fraser only wrote eight mysteries, the last was published in 1994, so perhaps she'll never get around to writing any more? She's probably best known for her historical biographies, but I quite enjoyed this mystery.
I like Jemima. Thinking of her as a woman in 1977 (when the book was first released), she's independent-minded, clever and spirited, just what I like in my female protagonists. A career woman, she's a journalist who hosts a popular TV show called 'Jemima Shore, Investigater'. She's single but is in the midst of an affair with a married man who is a liberal MP, and has no qualms about it. As a matter of fact she looks forward to a vacation away with him as a change from their brief trysts--rarely a whole night spent together. But Tom and his liberal causes remain mostly in the background of the story. As a matter of fact its the cancellation of their planned romantic holiday that sets Jemima on her own real investigative course.
As a girl during the war Jemima was sent to convent school, and so many years later she is pulled back to the cloistered world upon the death of an old friend.
"But for a short while, long ago, I had known Rosabelle Powerstock very well indeed. For a few moments the cold, elegant surroundings of affluent London in the seventies dissolved. It was wartime. A little Protestant day-girl sent by the vagaries of her father's career to a smart Catholic boarding convent conveniently next door. Bewildered and rather excited by the mysterious world in which she found herself. The resolute kindness of the nuns--was there any kindness like it for the undaunted firmness of its warmth whatever the reaction of its recipient?"
Combing the pages of the Evening Standard one day she finds a short notice about the death of nun of Blessed Eleanor's Convent School, Jemima's former school. The war caused strange schooling for many and often even quicker changes in living arrangements. Jemima was a student at Blessed Eleanor's for only a short time before her parents took her away north, but while there she was a fast and faithful friend of Rosabelle's, later to become Sister Miriam.
It's not so much the unusual death of the nun, whose body was found in a locked tower on the edge of the convent's property, rather Sister Miriam's will, that causes Reverend Mother Ancilla to contact Jemima for help. It's believed Sister Miriam simply fell ill and was unable to call for help. What is more worrisome is the change of heart she had about the land on which the convent sits and which was bought by Rosabelle's father. It was meant to remain as property of the Order in perpetuity, but shortly before her death Sister Miriam decided to will the land to a property developer for use by the poor. If the land is developed there will be nothing left for the convent, and everything they have worked so hard for will be lost. Something Mother Ancilla is not ready to allow happen.
Jemima is asked to help discover just what has happened within the Convent walls, for now the community is 'troubled' by the events surrounding the death. There are whispers of a new will left hidden by Sister Miriam, one best left undisturbed, or one that might settle all the Order's problems once and for all? What's interesting about Jemima is her attitude towards the nuns. At once she is in awe but also shows the tiniest bit of distaste at the idea of a cloistered nun's life. For Jemima these women live in an artificial, maybe even unnatural environment, but when faced with the very formidable Mother Ancilla she is all but reduced to the bewildered young girl she once was.
"'Quiet as a nun,' I repeated. To me they sounded ironic words. Where was the quiet in this seething community of neurotic women, many of them frustrated in one way or the other, quite out of touch with all that was good in the modern world? Many of them would do better to return to the world and find their own peace, than reside in this false quiet."
This is more a mystery of character and setting, though there is a fair bit of action as well. Not a detective story per se, or really even a cozy a la Miss Marple, it is somewhat unique with Jemima in the role of 'sleuth'. As stories go, Jemima actually does progress and change over the course of the telling, thanks to her experiences. Her prejudices are questioned and brought to light, and I enjoyed how her thinking progresses over the course of the story. I admit to a certain fascination and bewilderment myself when it comes to religious orders. And while I didn't go to a convent school I went to Catholic schools through almost my entire educational career, so I was very curious about the angle of the story.
As for the mystery aspect, this was entirely satisfying, too. There was lots of atmosphere. How can you not enjoy a story that contains a Black Nun (observed over the ages and carried down as myth but in the flesh in this story . . . ), locked towers, secret underground passages, crypts and an order of nuns where you're not entirely sure where their allegiance lies?
I was all set to reach for the second Jemima Shore mystery, The Wild Island, but then thought better of it when I looked again at the mysteries I've already got underway. Must finish a few before starting a new one. Still, I think I will at least dig it out of my mystery bins.
And I think I promised a peek at my little (messy) mystery collection. So perhaps in a day or so I'll oblige you. Unfortunately my books don't reside on bookshelves (there are too many of them and too little shelf space), but in big plastic bins. It will be a small peek, but you can get an idea of just how obsessive I really am (as if you don't already know . . . ). Oh, and I'm now working on Laurie King's A Grave Talent. I've had a really good run of mysteries over the course of the last month or so. To be continued.