Combining a sly sense of humor with adorable characters, this book is less about the gory business of solving a murder than the intricacies of having a nice cup of tea. In fact, the reader has to be occasionally reminded that there is a dead body at all (that of the unlikable Baroness Sliema), as the characters are much more bogged down in their day-to-day life and the occasional cricket game.
Chief Inspector Pearson, the book's detective, is the major source of this particularly laid-back investigation. He's so wonderfully British that his tea practically sips itself (and then apologizes profusely for the inconvenience).
He meanders happily from one corner of the convent to the other, lingering over breakfast, chatting with the gardeners and only really getting worked up when one of his patrolmen fails to hold the door open for the ladies.
The other influence on the book is the unusual setting. Convents in modern fiction seem to be places of juvenile cruelty or pornographic occultism (I read weird fiction, give me a break). In this case, it is the idealised convent of 1940s Britain: a location both calm and calming. The nuns all shuffle quietly through the building, dispensing pithy wisdom, shepherding their wards around and staring sharply (in a loving, maternal way) at anyone that steps out of line.
All in all, not a place for martial arts or gunfights.
The package of laid-back detective and tranquil setting would, normally, add up to a painfully slow book, but in this case, there's such a strong undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek humor that Murder in a Nunnery can't help but be enjoyed. The chattering flock of pre-teen wards, the crotchety, secretly-religious gardener, the iron control that the Mother Superior wields over the investigating officers... it all adds up to an adorable and comedic mystery, without ever once becoming a farce.
It is also a fair mystery, which is something I miss more and more. In between cricket and madeira, the Chief Inspector does do a bit of mucking about for clues - all of which are shared with the reader. There are no unfair surprises or unexpected twists, just a good, old-fashioned rewarding bit of explanation at the end. I'm not sure when this went out of style for bizarre, unforeseen reveals, but I miss it quite a bit...
Tube journeys: 2
*Cover shown is the 1957 reprint with the foxy Richard Powers cover art.