When the question is ‘Whodunnit?’ the answer is often obvious. Alan Edwards on the dramatic stereotype of the murderous vicar
If you have ever played Cluedo, you will know that you’re faced with a one in six possibility that Rev Green is a murderer.
If you ever watch a modern TV detective drama, you are spared such long odds. As soon as a cleric appears, all bets are off and you can safely predict that not only will it be ‘the vicar wot done it,’ but that he will have more loose screws than a B&Q Superstore. In short, see a collar and you know he’ll be collared. If TV had been around when Victorian England repelled the papal aggression, it would have been a Roman collar that he wore, but TV’s modern clerical murderers usually appear to be old-style broad church Anglicans. The CofE as a via murdera?
Interestingly, he does not include she, for although ladies now form a significant proportion of clerical person-power, in TV dramas, reverend women do not appear murderously motivated. In this respect TV detective fiction is stuck in a time warp, further evidenced by the fact that the BCP is unchallenged when it comes to burying the murder victims or marrying them, before the homicidal rector buries a candlestick (his preferred weapon) in their head.
If the Vicar of Dibley and her sisters continue to serve up saccharine rather than strychnine, the murderous ministry of the laity is not neglected. You should automatically put in the frame as a prime suspect any character, female no less than male, who quotes Scripture. No need for any more evidence than a reference to the Book of Revelation. In the view of TV dramatists, ‘Bible John’ has his malevolent disciples in every Midsomer village.
The murderous minister normally first appears on our screens as, late at night, he kneels in a deserted church, the camera zooming in on his tortured features.
The candles on the altar in the empty church are always alight – no continental style imitation electrics here. Perhaps the poor man is attempting to imitate his neighbouring supermarket which caters for its worshippers 24/7. A congregation will surely soon appear to join him.
Wrong again. The criminous clerk suddenly leaps to his feet and hurries out, pausing only to mouth a vengeance-laden verse. The Bible again. How many clues do we have to give you? How could Chesterton have written The Innocence of Father Brown? Innocent? Only because the delectable Amanda Redman and her ‘New Tricks’ boys weren’t around in those days.
Cunning clerics were still pretending innocence on USA TV until fairly recent times. Chicago’s Fr Dowling investigated with the help of a glamorous young nun whose permanent presence in the clergy house must have been Dowling’s defence against any attempt by the bishop to query his relationship to the clergy house’s other resident, an impossibly limp-wristed young priest.
Readers of both Ritual Notes and The Parson’s Handbook could unite for once in shuddering at the number of times that TV gets the clothing of clerics wrong. Coloured-stole-wearing eighteenth-century Anglicans?
A stole, however, provides the clue to the murderer’s identity in Simon Nash’s novel Unhallowed Murder. When a priest is observed hearing confessions wearing a green stole, a liturgically aware character (who’d never make it to a TV drama) draws the conclusion that the stole-wearer wasn’t the vicar, but an imposter who had killed the good Father and wanted to disguise the time of the murder to furnish an alibi. The killer, alas, did not turn out to be a liturgically challenged TV wardrobe mistress, but an outraged PCC member of Protty views. Now there’s a culprit ND readers would immediately suspect.