Sister Agatha
(creators: Aimée and David Thurlo)

Thurlos
Sister Agatha is an extern nun at Our Lady of Hope monastery near the small town of Bernalillo in the New Mexico desert. When we first meet her she is 44, and had been in the monastery for 12 years. Being an extern, she is responsible for her order's dealings with the outside world, and does not have to celebrate all the liturgical hours with her cloistered sisters, of whom there were only nine in total. ("New vocations were as rare as hens' teeth". In the last twelve years, they'd only had one new postulant who had remained with them.)

The Sisters of the Blessed Adoration are actually an invention of the authors, but "were inspired by two cloistered orders that have special meaning to Aimée", and "the details of daily life were taken from Aimée's memories of Ursuline Academy in Arcadia, Missouri, where she lived as a boarder for many years". The nuns "had modernized their old pre-Vatican II habits a long time ago, bravely raising the hemlines three inches from the floor, but they were still long sleeved, made of heavy serge, and nearly unbearable in hot weather" of which there was plenty. They address each other as Your Charity ("the monastic title their order used in lieu of a name at times"), but unfortunately this soon begins to sound both artificial and distracting.

Sister Agatha was a former investigative journalist and then a journalism professor ("she hadn't been exactly a pillar of virtue before she got the calling"). It was while nursing her dying brother, Kevin, that "she'd found new meaning in things she'd never valued before. Towards the end of his life, she'd received her calling from God - that stirring of the heart that drove a person to enter a monastery, and by finding God, she'd found herself".

As an extern nun, Sister Agatha seems to have great freedom of manoeuvre, and much enjoys riding a cherry-red 1986 Heritage Classic Harley-Davidson motorbike, complete with matching sidecar, that a parishioner donates to the nuns in the first book. She happily wears a helmet on which she has painted a sketch of "a nun on a motor cycle, with the words Heavens' Angels above it". Her brother had taught her about motorcycles "so I was put in charge of this one". She much prefers it to the nuns' ailing old station wagon that she had nicknamed the AntiChrsyler.

Sister Agatha has a nice sense of humor, although not always a very sophisticated one. When she is asked, "Do you know much about art, Sister?', she replies. "It's short for Arthur, isn't it?"

Accompanied by her large white German shepherd dog Pax (who had previously been a police dog but had been retired for showing insufficient aggression), she is a resourceful, brave character with a very simple (even simplistic) faith that God "was always there. He would always help her". Indeed even Pax was only there because "God had made sure that if she had to face danger, she wouldn't have to face it alone".

"Patience had never been one of her virtues", and she is quite ready to punch an armed robber on the nose if so provoked. She admits that she constantly gets into trouble. Certainly there always seems enough going on around her keep her busy, and, as she's good at eavesdropping, not much escapes her.

Sister Agatha's creators, Aimée and David Thurlo (David c1949 - ), live in Corrales, New Mexico in a home "full of dogs, horses, and various pet rodents". They have been married for well over 35 years. David was raised on the Navajo Indian Reservation and completed his education at the University of New Mexico before taking up teaching. He taught science for 25 years. Aimée had been educated at a Catholic boarding school run by the Ursuline Sisters, from which she had once run away.

They have published getting on for fifty novels, some of which have appeared under Aimée's name as well as pseudonyms, and have been published in more than twenty countries. Their output includes the Sister Agatha series, reviewed below. Aimée writes the first drafts of the books, then David adds the plotting and action scenes. He explains, "When you have a sleuth who is a nun, you can't just get out of things with a gunfight or a fistfight.The story has to have more structure to it."

Bad Faith (2002)
Father Anselm, the chaplain at Our Lady of Hope monastery in the New Mexican desert, suddenly collapses and dies while celebrating mass. Sheriff Tom Green is convinced that it is murder and an inside job. The Reverend Mother asks extern nun Sister Agatha (who in her previous life had "always shown a talent for investigative reporting") to look into the matter to save the monastery further interruptions, but she does not find the sheriff (whom she'd "dated back in high school and done more than that afterward during her wilder days") at all welcoming. He cannot understand the peace of the cloister. "All I see," he says, "is women living together behind walls. It's no more or less a prison than the one near Los Lunas or Santa Fe".

Sister Agatha herself happily chats to God. "Why couldn't you have sent rain a half a hour ago when I was sweating like a pig trying to get that car started?" Sister Agatha said, then instantly contrite, she sighed. "Not that I'm trying to tell you what to do, of course." This mixture of quiet humor and naivety makes for an amusing story.

Other characters too are lively and interesting. There's Sister Bernarda, the only other extern nun, who "had been a sergeant in the marines, serving for twenty years prior to joining the order". And there's Father Mahoney, the new parish priest, a keep-fit fanatic who likes to be called Father Rick, and who used to be a professional wrestler under the name of Apocalypse Now. Then there's the affectionate police dog Rex that seems able to find its way into the supposedly closed monastery at will and makes straight for Sister Agatha's bed. He is given to the nuns, when Reverend Mother changes his name to Pax, and he proves an excellent and, as it turns out, much-needed guard dog that nips into Sister Agatha's sidecar and accompanies her on her adventures.

The monastery is facing a time of financial crisis, and the nuns are prepared to exchange prayers for goods, as when they have to pay for essential computer repairs. Indeed the computer repair man seems to spend a remarkable amount of time in the monastery (in return, he asks for just a dozen cookies and "a month's worth of novenas").

Eventually Sister Agatha realises, much to her dismay, who it is who has access to the poisonous monkshood plant, so who the murderer must be. For once she "had no desire to pray, She was angry - with herself and with God. All nuns, sooner or later, faced a time when they felt abandoned - or lost - a crisis of faith. That time was now upon her, and it was as dark as any moonless night". But that's all that's said about it. The nuns' lives seem to be observed from the outside, and the authors are understandably not so strong on their inner lives. They are better at more comic moments, as when Sister Agatha unexpectedly defeats a rough and tough biker at pool.

All in all, it's quite an entertaining book, if not very strong on deep spiritual understanding.

Thief in Retreat (2004)
Thief in Retreat sees Sister Agatha being sent to investigate odd disappearances of religious art from The Retreat, an inn/residential centre, that was housed in what had been an old monastery. But an art expert has vanished without trace (guess who finds his body), and a ghostly apparation or two of a long-dead woman (who'd been shot in a saloon that pre-dated the monastery) keeps appearing, usually acompanied by a strong scent of lilacs.

The inn is used for residential courses, one of which is for writers of mystery books, so there are some amusing glimpses of the writers and of their problems. The authors say in their preface that hopefully the book "will give everyone a glimpse of the day-to-day craziness of a writer's world - the agents, the competition, the demand to produce, and the passion that drives us to write".

The tribulations of romance-writer Charlee Lane are, we are told, a reflection of Aimée's own tribulation when she began her career. "I'm so glad to meet you," Charlee tells Sister Agatha, "I'd love to know more about what a nun's life is like. Maybe I'll be able to use a nun character in one of my books". All this is quite fun. But then Charlee's manuscript disappears. "Charlee whined, 'I put everything I had into that novel.' Sister Agatha heard more than her words. The novel had taken a piece of Charlee's heart".

Later on, there's a remarkably unconvincing episode when Charlee catches everyone's attention by whistling like a dog. "I have an announcement to make," she said imperiously. "If it's the intent of the thief to pass my manuscript off as his or her own work, you should know that my attorney now has a copy - with a notarised statement that shows the time and date. The game is over and you lose". Then "without another word, she turned and stormed out". This sounds straight from the pages of a novel - as, of course, it is.

There's a heartfelt plea from one artist, "I put my soul into what I do. But once my work's out there, it's at the mercy of critics, and some will spread venom on my pieces just to make their own tastes and preferences sound superior. It doesn't take a lot of time or a sense of fair play for them to trash what you've put your heart into and spent months and months working on." It could, you can't help feeling, be the authors speaking, as in the following passage: "Creating an entire book is very hard work, and it doesn't end with the final page. Writing is a business, and we end up competing for virtually everything - finding a good agent, winning a slot on a publisher's list, placement in prime locations inside bookstores, wholesale distribution, and a decent advertising push by the marketing department".

Sister Agatha recognises her old schoolfriend (and one-time lover), Sheriff Tom Green, who is attending a communications course and had agreed to help look into things, but only unofficially, as the place was really outside his area. "I have a feeling." he tells her, "we'll make better progress if we coordinate what we're trying to do". So they do, although much disapproved of by the real local sheriff. "God save me from amateurs, " he begs. Agatha did not like him."Hours and hours of contemplation back at the monastery, that special devotion when her heart reached up to God and His Son without words, had changed her forever. It had given her an awareness of what was real - what mattered - and what was inconsequential. In her opinion, there was very little that was real about Sheriff Barella."

At the heart of the book (the authors explain) "is Sister Agatha and her love for God. He is the center of her world. That too is a part of us". There seem no spiritual problems of any sort and Agatha always seems to feel "a clear sense of God's presence ....As long as God stayed first in her thoughts and in her heart, she'd find the answers she needed." It seems just a bit too cosy to have the spirit of God always "comforting and leading her footsteps". Yet when she reads the old journal of a monk who had "often struggled with doubts about his vocation and his ability to live up to the calling he'd received, she felt a genuine kinship with him, having faced many of the same challenges." It would have been altogether more convincing if we'd heard more about them. As it is, she just says things like, "God provides for all his children".

At times the story meanders along but eventually it all builds up to quite a dramatic climax, although it really is a bit too corny to end a chapter with "Suddenly a bloodcurdling scream pierced the air". But the basic plot still holds the interest.

Prey for a Miracle (2006)
Prey for a Miracle gets off to an arresting start when a mother's car is forced off the road, she is badly injured and her 8-year-old daughter, Natalie, disappears. The driver is the sister of Father Mahoney, the local priest, so it is not long before Sister Agatha gets involves and manages to find her. But little Natalie is certain she has her own guardian angel, Samara, from whom she takes advice. Then, when some of the things she says come true, people start hoping for miraculous cures. Sister Agatha and the church authorities don't quite know what to make of all this. But one thing becomes certain: the little girl is soon in danger and in real need of protection, so it is agreed that she can stay at the monastery while her mother is so ill in hospital.

The authors' describe this book as "one of our all-time favorites", and you can see why. Sister Agatha is becoming more real, even finding, after listening during breakfast to a nun reading from the martyrology, that "the heroics of the saints failed to give her any comfort". And she's prepared to tell God, "This feeling that I'm missing something just won't go away. But you're going to have to speak louder".

Looking after Natalie "had made her realise that her maternal instincts were very much alive". She begins to accept that perhaps the girl can see part of the future although "skepticism was part of her nature" and she wondered too about more obvious explanations. And she can laugh too, as while packing Natalie's mice shaped slippers that make a comic squeaking sound, she imagines "that squeaking sound every time Natalie took a step (in the monastery) , particularly during the Great Silence" each night.

When Natalie tells her that her guardian angel doesn't have wings because "she didn't really need them", Sister Agatha could smile at the girl and suggest, "Could be she's allergic to feathers". But how then, she asked, did Natalie know that Samara was an angel. "What else could she have been? She shimmers, and when I look at her, it's like looking at the sun, only the light that comes from her doesn't hurt your eyes. She's beautiful." Agatha can only agree with the verdict of the Bishop's chancellor, sent to investigate the girl, that "I don't think it will ever be posssible for us to know whether or not Natalie is really seeing an angel". Yet on one occasion "she caught a glimpse of something like a mist or maybe smoke directly behind Natalie. 'You saw Samara too, didn't you?' Natalie said with a smile. Natalie's question unnerved her. 'I saw a mist .... no, smoke. I don't know.' "

Pax, Sister Agatha's ever-faithful dog, hurls himself into action, chasing burglars or biting aggressors (or even pushing her out of the way of falling masonry) when occasion demands. There's some exciting action that leads up to a dramatic rescue attempt, when poor Pax gets knocked out, but Sister Bernardo gets the chance to deliver two hearty kicks to the villain. There are some good sub-plots too, as when the nuns, desperate to earn money for essential roof repairs, begin trying to mass-market their Cloister Cluster cookies. It all turns out to be much more difficult than any of them had foreseen.

The monastery is by no means totally isolated from the modern world. Not only does it have its own website, but Sister Agatha has been given her own cell phone, and makes good use of it. As Sheriff Tom Green (who had given her the phone) tells her, "People always open up to you and remember things they never told us," he grumbled. "It's the nun thing. You're not threatening them."

Father Mahoney is sorry that he had not done more for his sister Jessica, Natalies' mother, who still lies dangerously ill. "Fate couldn't destroy her spirit, so it destroyed her body instead," he complains.
"Jessica hasn't given up, and you can't, either," Sister Agatha tells him.
"I'm a priest, Sister. I'm on the front lines every single day. I know hope for what it is. It tempts you to believe in chances, to forget the odds. Better to brace yourself for the worst 'cause that's what usually ends up happening."
"God never said life would be easy," she answered. "He only promised that He'd see us through the hard times, that we wouldn't walk alone."

Her reply may sound a little glib, but at least she has recognised that "for those who had chosen the religious life, a crisis of faith - a dark night of the soul, as St John of the Cross had called it - often came with devastating results. It sapped the heart of confidence and courage it needed to follow a oath all too often lined with thorns." It is this feeling of getting to grips with reality, plus the strong story that help make this the best book in the series so far.

The Prodigal Nun (2008)
The Prodigal Nun tells how the murdered body of Jane Sanchez, a devout local woman, is found in the parking area of the Our Lady of Hope monastery In New Mexico. It is not clear if Sanchez was the actual target or whether the killing was aimed at the monastery itself. Sister Agatha felt she should have done more to help Jane who had approached her for help: "She'd prayed for forgiveness, but she needed to do more - like help the sheriff find the killer before he struck again." But, as, despite her arthritis, she chases over the country with her dog Pax, and gets more and more involved, the threats mount, and her own life is in danger.

There are some amusing touches, as when Agatha hears a shrill scream and "before she'd even taken a step, Sister Bernarda shot past her and ran across the parking lot towards the cries. As an ex-marine, her soldier's instincts always gave her the edge in emergencies." But the plot, despite its false trails, is not a very interesting one, and there is a general lack of excitement, not helped by the way that the murderer's identity is revealed long before the end.

Agatha's religious experiences consists largely of pious if rather naïve thoughts and much simplistic prayer. " I have very few friends in high places - well, except for the Highest Place," she said, pointing up. When young Sister Jo suggests, "Sometimes God doesn't answer prayers though", she replies, "You mean requests. He always answers prayers, but sometimes we are so intent on the answer we want, we missed the other possibilities He brings our way."

However, there was an occasion, when "Sister Agatha reached out to Him wordlessly, asking for His help and His protection. No answers came. Refusing to give up, she remained where she was. Then, in the soft glow of the flickering candles, she became aware of a gently shimmering light on the left wall. As a flash of lightning suddenly illuminated the chapel, it became a brilliant figure as tall as the ceiling, its bright outlines filled with colors. Tzuriel, the monastery's angel. She knew it in her heart. Before the words had even formed in her mind, the figure vanished." It makes two further appearances later on (see below). It seems a pity it could not offer a bit of practical help.

Some characters, like the latest arrival, young sister Jo, full of exuberance and goodwill, also seem rather too good to be true. It is Jo who, when told she must not work in recreation time, attaches two mop heads to her shoes and shuffles up and down to polish the floor!

And some incidents, such as when her old friend sheriff Tom Green lets her go off completely on her own to the address of an ex-prisoner who owes her a grudge, seem very improbable. Nor does it seem likely that so pious an individual as Sister Agatha would resort to lying in order to entrap the murderer.

It ends with nuns noticing "one perfectly formed gold leaf on the ground and directly in front of them. The breeze suddenly caught it, and as it lifted up off the ground. Reverend Mother and Sister Agatha saw that it was in the shape of an angel, wings and all.
Reverend Mother gasped, then whispered a heartfelt "Thank you." Before she'd even finished the words, the leaf floated upwards into the trees and out of sight.
"It wasn't meant to stay here. God demands faith most of all," Sister Ignatius whispered. As the bells for Compline rang, a hush fell over all of them. With bowed heads, the Brides of Christ put down their tools and answered their Lord's gentle summons."
It all sounds very sentimentalised.

The Thurlos have their own website, and there is a complete bibliography on the Fantastic Fiction site.



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Bad Faith cover
This was the first Sister Agatha book, and has the most arresting cover.
The Prodigal Nun cover
This cover looks a bit over-the-top. The title is never explained. Presumably it's a jokey reference to the Prodigal Son, but it does not seem at all appropriate.
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