‘The Religious Body’ – Inspector Sloan #1 by Catherine Aird

The day begins like any other for Sister Mary St. Gertrude. When her alarm sounds at 5 a.m., Sister Mary begins rousting her convent sisters from their beds, starting with the Reverend Mother. Down the Order she goes with a knock and a warm blessing. But when the young nun reaches Sister Anne’s door, there is no answer. She assumes that Sister Anne got up early, and continues on her way.
But later, when a fellow nun leaves a bloody thumbprint on the sheet music for a hymn, and Sister Anne is nowhere to be found, it becomes apparent that something is very wrong. Then Sister Anne’s body is found at the bottom of a steep set of stairs, her veil askew and her head crushed.

By the time I finished this book, I was enjoying myself and realised that I’d found another series to read (there are currently twenty-seven Inspector Sloan books, so that gives me plenty to add to my TBR).

But I didn’t really relax into the book until the second half because I strongly disliked what I saw as the book’s attitude towards the nuns at the centre of the story. I kept telling myself that the sneering, dismissive way the nuns were talked about by the police was just a reflection of the times (the book was published in 1966). Perhaps it’s a result of being raised as a Catholic, but I couldn’t reconcile the fact the I was supposed to see Inspector Sloan as an educated, sophisticated man, with a dry wit and yet he seemed to have no respect for a life of prayer and reflection and instead of seeing it as a valid choice driven by spiritual need, he tended to dismiss a nun’s life as either unnatural or a waste.

This annoyed me so much that it took me a while to notice the changes in Sloan’s attitudes and behaviour as he gained an understanding of the daily lives of the Sisters. By the end of the book, Sloan clearly has a lot of respect for the nun running the convent, even if he still struggles to understand why anyone would choose the religious life.

I think Catherine Aird did a good job of displaying the attitudes of the time without necessarily accepting them and that she portrayed the nuns themselves as a diverse set of people who, even when trying to live a life that subjugates the self, remained distinct personalities with their own approach to a life of prayer.

One of the things that helped me relax in the second half of the book was that the plot suddenly took off. There was a second body and a plethora of suspects and motives. The ending was surprising and clever and quite dynamic for a book that had felt a little static at times.

So, although this book showed its age and some of the humour felt more like aggression, I was impressed enough that I’d like to see how the series develops.

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