Christine Bennett, the ex Franciscan nun who, helped by her policeman partner to turn detective, is the creation of Lee Harris (1935- ), the pseudonym of Syrell Rogovin Leahy who also writes fiction under her own name. As Lee Harris, she has published 16 Christine Bennett novels.
Christine Bennett leaves her Order at the age of 30, after 15 years in the convent, and the novels follow her progress as she gets engaged, married, and experiences motherhood, helping to solve murders all the while. Although there are discreet references to her having to learn to make love, and she gets to enjoy more fancy food than she'd been used to, she doesn't regret the time she spent in the convent: "I loved what I was doing. I got a fine education and I taught wonderful students. It was a very fulfilling life. I still feel close to the people at the convent" and Sister Joseph, her mentor there, remains her closest friend.
The Good Friday Murder (1992)
The first (and one of the most gripping) of the Christine Bennet novels, The Good Friday Murder, gets the series off to a strong start. It's the fascinating story of a 40-year-old murder possibly committed by one or both of two retarded twin brothers, now old men. It's interesting too because of what it reveals of Christine Bennett's old background as a nun: "It was a wonderful life for many years, the best life I could have had. The change came when I was in my late twenties. I found that what I loved was the teaching, the students, the reading, not being a nun who did all those things. I watched students graduate and go on, and knew that I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to move on." And move on she certainly did, "but my faith was no longer the center of my life". What she was left with seems to be an overwhelming desire to be of help to people - and that's what gets her involved in all her adventures.
Like all the books, it's written in the first person so it's only gradually that we come to discover the sort of person she really is: "I have never had a relationship with a man.... I scarcely imagined that less than a month after I moved to Oakwood, I would meet an attractive man who would want to take me out..." But, of course, she does - and he happens to be a police-detective. Recommended.
The Yom Kippur Murder (1992
The Yom Kippur Murder sets Christine off in pursuit of the killer of a lonely old widower whom, as an act of kindness, she'd been intending to accompany to a Yom Kippur service. She describes herself just as "a part-time college English teacher and a part-time volunteer for worthy projects" but doesn't hesitate to delve deeply into the past then, if necessary, put herself into really dangerous situations, with or without police help. Although the plot gets rather tortuous, it is all described in a very realistic way.
The Christening Day Murder (1993)
The Christening Day Murder sees Christine invited to a christening in a
deserted church in a town that had been under the water in a reservoir for 30 years. A skeleton is found there, and it's only by really persistent and determined research and questioning that Christine is eventually able to uncover the mystery, helped by the advice of Mother Joseph and the encouragement of her boy friend, Sergeant Jack Brooks. The story is well told, but as so much of it is in the past, it is less dramatic than some of her other adventures, but it is still strong in human interest: "Having lived without sex for thirty years, I am still somewhat amazed that I can be reduced to desperation if we don't see each other for more than a few days."
The St Patrick's Day Murder (1994)
In The St Patrick's Day Murder, one of Christine Bennett's police friends is shot dead and another is arrested for the murder. Immediately after proposing to her (and being accepted), her Police Sergeant boyfriend, Jack, persuades her: "I want you to try to clear Ray. You've done it before, and you've done it when the police couldn't and the evidence was hard to come by. If anyone can clear him, I think you can." And this she does, after getting involved with "an anonymous informant who doesn't show up for a midnight meeting, a missing handgun, and a nun who won't come clean!" The fact that she had been a nun herself isn't really very relevant (except for the help that Sister Joseph still gives her), although at one point she gets as far as recognising that she was experiencing "more than a flicker of the sin of pride." The plot is ingenious and the police background is well handled.
The Christmas Night Murder (1994)
The Christmas Night Murder is another good story, with plenty happening in the present as well as an investigation into the past. It begins with the disappearance of a beloved priest on his way back to enjoy Christmas at St Stephen's convent. Although it is Christine's first Christmas with Jack after their marriage (she's even leaning to bake, although "baking is fraught with a lot more terror and possibiity of failure than first-time love"), she goes off to spend a few extra nights at the convent to help sort things out. It's her turn to help Mother Joseph now, because, as her friend tells her, "I am utterly unable to look at the case because I'm inside. I'm part of it." As Christine finds out more about the scandalous past, a nun gets murdered. It's not for nothing that she is subsequently told that "with a little effort you could probably write potboilers". Recommended.
The Thanksgiving Day Murder (1995)
The Thanksgiving Day Murder is the first story in which Christine is offered money (although she only accepts expenses) for solving a crime. As always, Christine is happy to "take on investigations that will lead me away from the safe and the ordinary", having "an innate desire to know about people's lives, what makes them tick, if anything." In this case, her friend Melanie's uncle's wife has mysteriously disappeared during a Thanksgiving Day Parade just over a year previously, but Christine also gets involved with discovering the identity of the woman her father used to meet on similar occasions. It's an ingenious story and well told. Her husband Jack is too busy working for his law degree at evening classes to play a major part, but, like Mother Joseph, he's always around to offer encouragement and practical help.
The Passover Murder (1996)
The Passover Murder sees Christine attending her first Passover at her friend Melanie Gross's house (the author is good with stories with a Jewish background). There she hears about what happened 16 years before, when a great aunt who went, as is the custom, to open the door for Elijah during the seder - but never came back. Two days later, the aunt's murdered body is found. (Friendly and generous though Melanie is, it doesn't seem to pay to be one of her relations!). Christine is reluctantly persuaded to investigate her disappearance, but although she shows considerable ingenuity in tracking down survivors of that time, they are often reluctant to tell her very much, and she has to "call in my secret weapon", Mother Joseph. It all makes an interesting story with well-drawn characters - and, for Christine herself is also memorable because at the end of it she finds that she is pregnant.
The Valentine's Day Murder (1997)
The Valentine's Day Murder is another ingenious and complicated story, this one being about three old friends who try to walk across frozen Lake Erie - then disappear. Two bodies eventually emerge. Newly pregnant Christine explains, "All I wanted to do was to get a garden going and watch seeds sprout. But it was not to be". So she sets out on what she thinks (because of her pregnancy) must be her last case, and despite morning sickness, anxiety about adding an extension to the house, and the reluctance of hospital staff to reveal confidential information, she manages, as usual, to sort everything out. Then, right at the end, husband Sergeant Jack reminds her of her mother's old friend Elsie, who has already begun offering to baby-sit. Maybe it won't be her last case, after all.
The New Year Eve Murder (1997)
In The New Year Eve Murder, Christine's baby, Eddie,has not only arrived but is over three months old. There is no description of his birth. The story is about Christine's lawyer's friend's daughter, who - guess what - had mysteriously disappeared. Christine rather hesitatingly leaves young Eddie with her husband as she sets off on the trail. This time, though, Mother Joseph is allowed to see a bit of the action when she accompanies Christine into a desolate farmhouse to discover a corpse. This gets the story off to a good start, but it all ends up with altogether too much conversation about characters who aren't always all that interesting.
The most human parts of the story are those involving baby Eddie, as when she nurses him in her car, only to be arrested by the police for exposing herself in public. However it turns out that, as her lawyer tells her, "You nursed your baby in one of the three states in this splendid union of ours that expressly permits the nursing of babies in public." Christine's delight in this story, and in her baby rings true.
The Labor Day Murder (1998)
The Labor Day Murder is set on Fire Island, "New York's great vacation spot", where Christine, husband Jack, and baby Eddie are on holiday in a borowed house. Despite the murder of a local fire chief and a girl living opposite, Christine surprisingly confides that "I had never had a vacation as sumptuous and restful as this one". The story is rather prolonged, with lots of improbable but lengthy conversations about the past, and references to baby Eddie, but not very much action. Sister Joseph comes to stay overnight and drops a useful hint - but otherwise there's no real use of Christine's religious background. Even the author's understanding of "all the interesting grudges that built up in a community" isn't enough to make this one of her more interesting books.
The Father's Day Murder (1999)
In The Father's Day Murder, Christine, when not looking after her engaging baby Eddie, investigates the murder of one of the Morris Avenue Boys, a group of old friends who have known each other since childhood days. This means lengthy interviews with all these men and their wives, and as what little action there is all happened in the remote past, there's a lack of excitement in the story-telling. In fact, the most interesting part is where it is described how the murdered man, a novelist, wrote his books out by hand, crossing parts out, or using paper clips to add inserted material, before getting them typed. Then editorial cuts were filed at the back. Blue pencil marks show where the copy editor corrected the punctuation etc. This, Lee Harris has explained, is very much how she writes her own books.
The other part I found quite interesting was an interview with the author at the end of the book: "Chris is completely fictional, inspired by no single person ... An ex-nun seemed to give me a lot of opportunities for character development ... only a little of my experience, like my education, the kind of work I've done, and where I've lived, goes into my books. ... I can't do a book without research. I have an expert on Catholicism and nuns who helps me in that area, and a retired NYPD detective who gives me hours of his experience. They're the first two people I acknowledge in every book."
The Mother's Day Murder (2000)
The Mother's Day Murder is a much better story, and is well told. Christine's son Eddie is now a two-and-a-half-year-old and keeps her busy: "The further away from criminals that I can keep him, the better off we'll be". Not so easy when even Christine's best and oldest friend, Sister Joseph, is suspected of murder (no-one is safe from suspicion in these books), but Christine again finds that it is by digging into the past, that she can explain the present. She explains: "Every homicide is different. While I hate the idea of killing, I become engrossed in finding out why it happened, why someone became so angry, so distraught, so out of control that he could take away a life. Trying to solve a murder is a privilege for me". It's interesting for the reader too. Recommended.
The April Fool's Day Murder (2001)
The April Fool' Day Murder gets off to a good start when three-year-old Eddie bumps his shopping trolley into bad-tempered old Willard Platt, who subsequently manages to get himself murdered not once, but apparently twice. Which of his unhappy family could be responsible? As this well-told story slowly unfolds, Christine explains, "I guess one of the things that I like best about trying to solve a homicide is the way facts surface one by one and little by little. You think you have a clear picture and then something else turns up and the picture is no longer clear." All this unofficial detective work takes some persistence and patience - from both Christine and the reader.
The Happy Birthday Murder (2002)
The Happy Birthday Murder begins with Christine rescuing two bits of paper from the past from her damp cellar, one about the death of a retarded young man, who had been a friend of her cousin Gene, 12 years previously, and the other an obituary of a wealthy local man who had apparently committed suicide just after his 50th birthday, also 12 years before. It is Christine who learns that each was wearing the other's sneakers, and so becomes convinced that the two events were linked. As in some of the other Lee Harris books, this story gets off to an interesting start before ultimately getting weighed down in pages of conversation about what might have happened. Eddie, now almost four, continues to entertain.
The Bar Mitzvah Murder (2004)
The Bar Mitzvah Murder is a lively and interesting story (even if it is rather full of coincidences) about a visit to Jerusalem in the comparatively peaceful days before the intafada began. A wealthy American goes there for an adult Bar Mitzvah and is kidnapped. Christine Bennett, helped by her husband, now promoted from police sergeant to lieutenant, eventually solves the problem (even though this at first involves concealing some confidential but vital information from him).
I particularly enjoyed reading about her experiences as a tourist in Jerusalem where she learns, amongst other things, that it pays to insist that a local taxi driver starts his meter before he drives you off - it sounds as though the author may be speaking from bitter personal experience here. Christine Bennett's early experience as a nun is really quite irrelevant to the story (except for a couple of long distance phone calls to her old friend Sister Joseph) but it all holds the interest, even if it it does strain credulity the way she gets (almost) everyone to answer her questions just by saying she's helping the police. Recommended.
The Silver Anniversary Murder (2005)
The Silver Anniversary Murder lacks such an interesting background and comes as something of a disappointment. It begins melodramatically with a woman phoning up Christine Bennett: "A body will be found later today. I want you to be the first to know. I think you may enjoy looking into this death." In fact, two bodies are soon found, but nothing else very dramatic happens while Christine, as usual, does lots of legwork, has lengthy conversations and tries to do "the intuitive work that had helped catch a number of killers over the last half dozen years." I'm left wondering if, after 16 books, Lee Harris is understandably rather running out of ideas.
The Cinco de Mayo Murder (2006)
The Cinco de Mayo Murder sees Christine Bennett (who admits to being closer now to 40 than to 30) accompanying her old friend, Sister Joseph, on a trip to Arizona, where she is reminded of a former high school classmate, Heinz Gruner, who had inexplicably fallen to his death twenty years earlier, while hiking on Picacho Peak, near Tucson. It had happened on May 5th, hence the title. Christine sets about tracking down anyone and everyone who had any connection with the event.
She discovers that Heinz's backpack had mysteriously disappeared, then appeared again, at the spot where he fell (or was pushed?) off the mountain, and that he had not been alone there, as everyone had claimed. But was he with 1, 2 or 3 other people? Thanks to long (and remarkably forthcoming) conversations with such people as his fellow undergraduate, now Prof. Fallon, and interviews with the occupants of the other rooms in the dormitory corridor he had lived on, she is finally able to work out what must have happened. Only the guilty party tries to warn her off with "You know, Miss Bennett, these things are not your business." In real life, one suspects, she would have been told this more often. But it all makes quite an ingenious story although, as the most interesting action happened so long before, you could not call it all that exciting.
I had wondered whether or not to include these books on this site, because the clerical background isn't really very significant - but a number of them are good stories in their own right. They may not claim to offer any great spiritual understanding, but in their way they do sometimes show love in action, as when Christine finds time for her mentally retarded cousin Gene and is always so ready to help people. As Lee Harris herself explains, "Christine Bennett is an ex-nun; I'm not even a Catholic... But we both have that itch to dig below the surface, to find what lies hidden in the pastwhere all the good stuff in life is buried."
Lee Harris no longer has has her own Nuns, Mothers and Others magazine web page but past issues (and her email address) can be found here, and her crime books are listed, with dates, on the Dutch Crime & Mystery Fiction site.
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