(creator: Irene Allen)
|Elizabeth Elliot is 66 years old when we first meet her, and has been a widow for six years. She is the mother of two sons, but now just lives with her cat Sparkle. She looks "a bit overweight, and certainly not tall. But she had an open and pleasant face, somehow always near to smiling, a comfortable face topped with a thick thatch of gray hair". She "was on a fixed income. Pension money and Social Security checks supported her, but in modest style". She has to cope with arthritis, and must keep an eye on her blood pressure, but she is energetic enough to cope with the job of being Clerk to the Friends Meeting at Cambridge (USA). A lifelong Quaker, she has only recently been elected Clerk (or head) of the Meeting. "it's "a little bit like being a chairman", she explains.
She is apprehensive about her ability to serve as Clerk, but she soon sees it as part of her responsibility to come to the aid of members who need her help. Hence her involvement in detection. But is she a a clerical detective? Well, although she "had no claim to ordination .... all Quakers considered themselves to be ministers".
Irene Allen is the pen-name of Dr E Kirsten Peters, former faculty member in Washington State University's Department of Geology. She is a native of rural Washington State who graduated with a degree in geology from Princeton University in 1984. She earned her doctorate from the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at Harvard University in 1990. She has also done published research in the late-Pleistocene outburst floods of eastern Washington State. Since 1995 she has taught undergraduate-level geology and interdisciplinary science classes at Washington State University in her hometown of Pullman, Washington. She became an assistant professor in the College of Sciences at WSU. She has written two non-traditional geology textbooks and helped revise Thomson's Essentials of Geology for its current edition.
Under her pen-name, Irene Allen, she is the author of four murder mysteries. She herself is a practising Quaker and regularly attended the Cambridge meetinghouse.
Quaker Silence (1992 )
The police focus their attentions on Tim, another meeting member, who is a young, homeless man whom Hoffman occasionally hired to work in his garden. Tim is unable to supply a convincing alibi, but Elizabeth is certain that he is innocent, and sets to work to find the evidence. It makes a realistic, if not very fast-moving, story, and there is little exciting action, but the Quaker background is so well-handled that it makes a memorable read. And Quaker customs, such as the habit of keeping journals turn out to be very relevant to the plot. "Many serious Quakers were in the habit of keeping journals: they were meant to record not just day-to-day events but the growth of the author in the life of the Spirit". And Hoffman had kept just such a journal. But Quakers are not idealised: one of them turns out to be a liar, and another a murderer, and Elizabeth herself "often noted that sorrow and self-righteousness were threads that Quakers found easy to weave together".
When Elizabeth feels the need to talk things over, she asks 85-year-old Patience Silverstone "if she would be willing to be a one-person Clearness Committee" to help her out. After sharing her concerns, and her need for help in finding Clearness, "the elder of the two asked for silence. Two friends sat in the quiet of the kitchen, trying to listen for God's voice". That surely is at the heart of Quakerism. The author's own beliefs shine through. Recommended if for this alone.
Quaker Witness (1993)
The world of research labs is one that the author knew well, but the main plot, involving plagiarism and fraud, is less interesting than a sub-plot about the apparently ever-present bias against women scientists (had the author experienced this herself? She obviously feels deeply about it). Even Elizabeth's friend Joel is not very sympathetic about the supposed harassment: "If the professor does or says things the young woman does not appreciate, I'm sure all she need do is tell him so".
Elizabeth, whom the author often, and slightly awkardly, just calls The Quaker, is reduced to eavesdropping and even encourages Janet to break into a professor's office to examine his lab notebooks. "That seems wrong, of course, but I almost hope you will consider it," hints Elizabeth. "She knew what she was doing was most un-Quakerly. But, as usual when contemplating something to which her conscience objected, her stubborn and defensive feelings drowned out the better parts of herself". It's good to be reminded that she's human.
She hears about a young man, John Anderson, whom her younger son, Andrew, had known as a child and who is about to be released from prison where he had been sent on a rape charge. Andrew tells her she would be crazy to take him in, but that, of course, does not stop her. At first she and John can discuss religion quite happily. He tells her he's been very impressed by a Quaker visitation to his prison. "None of the Quakers preached at us. That's what got my respect, I guess. I asked Ralph (one of the visitors) why Quakers don't preach. He said he figured everybody's soul was already saved".
But a little later when John comes, he is obviously the worse for drink. "The Clerk, like most Quakers, regarded all alcholic beverages as temptation. To make things worse, John's clothes reeked of smoke, and she involuntarily made a face at the smell." Then when he blurts out, "Jesus Christ, in prison I had more freedom!", she tells him, "I won't have people who stay with me come home swearing. Swearing because they are drunk". Later on, she apologises: "I'm sorry if I seemed unreasonable ... You're still welcome with me".
At the end, Elizaberh "felt grief and guilt washing over her. .... Her arrogance had led her to overestimate what she could do for Andrew's childhood friend .... She prayed for forgiveness and for the wisdom not to repeat her mistake." All this seems much more real and interesting than all the devious plots and lengthy goings-on in the labs.
Finally, Elizabeth finds herself outside a church. "Some Quakers would never venture into a church, but Elizabeth was sure that God could be found anywhere ...."
Quaker Testimony (1996)
Every chapter begins with a quote from some Quaker work, and Quaker ideas and beliefs permeate the whole, although there seems only one old lady, her friend Patience, who still uses the term thee as in "It's always good to see thee". But the Friends constantly address each other as "Friend", and their way of living and, in the case of old Patience, dying, is convincingly described. "I am going now, Friend, and I am happy. Thee must accept it.
Elizabeth, who is now 67, is getting increasingly close to a Quaker widower, Neil Stevenson, who also had grown-up children, "and she knew they were reaching the point where their relationship must either become deeper or wither". He is "a shy man and quiet even by Quaker standards" and they must be careful not to give cause for scandal. There is a snag, though: "Neil was well-to-do, and she often felt that his money came between them. His wealth conflicted with her notion of Quaker simplicity."
As so often, you are left either admiring her or wondering whether she isn't being over-prissy, unlike her younger friend Ruth whom she finds is sometimes distressingly facetious. So when Ruth greets her, "You look worn out, Friend. Too bad the Meeting for Healing isn't until Saturday", Elizabeth "was unsure whether Ruth was speaking facetiously. The Meeting she had mentioned was a grave matter to the Clerk, since it was one at which the needs of the membership could be publicly brought before God. But some Friends thought petition and intercession to be the lowest forms of prayer and looked askance at Meetings for Healing". But when Ruth is reckless enough to say ,"Damn it!", Elizabeth was decidedly not pleased, although she "decided against eldering her friend for her language".
Elizabeth is very conscious (too conscious?) of her own failings. "Despite the hardships the Clerkship brought her, Elizabeth could not fully suppress her pride in having a post given to her by the people she valued most. Such pride, she knew, could border on the sinful, and she tried to set it aside whenever she recognised it". So she was all the more upset when, at the next Business Meeting, she had to admit that she had been held in police custody. One of her fellow Friends then suggested that, as "the apostle Paul warns us to avoid the appearance of evil, not just evil itself", she should step down from being Clerk until the matter was resolved. Luckily there were still other Friends to support her.
Quakers, of course, have no ordained clergy. She thought there was a danger in ordaining people. "After being told they spoke for God, and did so in a way no one else in their congregation could, was it any wonder so many clergymen succombed to the worst part of their own egos? .... That was not to say, of course, that Quakers were less prone to the sins of personal life than church people. They simply could do less harm to their brothers and sisters in Christ since no Friend had authority over any other". Elizabeth herself is reminded "of her constant failure to to be a true light in a dark and complex world".
Elizabeth remains an engaging if at times sometimes slightly pernickety character, wo would be quite lost without her Quaker beliefs: "The idea of our worship is to listen to the silence. We think that God's voice can sometimes be heard in that way. Someone may be called by the Spirit to speak. If the worship is deep enough, what they say may be important to many of us".
At the end, you are you left wondering whether the story really needed the murder too to hold the interest. Would a lesser crime have worked as well? It might have made everything seem so much more likely.
The description of radiation leaks (on one occasion, even a deliberate leak), its consequence still felt today in increased cancer risks in the area, and the deceit of the authorities almost defies belief - but the author insists in her introduction that "Hanford's history, as mentioned in these pages, is quite factual .... The reader might be entitled to know that I think the radiation emitted by Hanford has likely been less harmful to almost everyone in the region than has the site's long history of deceiving the public."
All this makes a gripping story, especially as the Hanford authorities, determined to deny what is their obvious involvement, make Elizabeth's task increasingly difficult and dangerous. And she is often riddled with pain too, plagued by arthritis. She much misses the support of her Quaker community, but can still find help in prayer. "Let it be to me according to Thy word. In a moment, all words were gone and Elizabeth was enveloped in a warmth that she had experienced many times before in her life as a Quaker. Filled to overflowing with the love embodied by this simple mystical experience, she blessed all that she knew of this strange desert land."
This, like the previous books, is far from being a conventional detective novel, and Elizabeth is more deeply influenced by her religious beliefs than any other of the clerical detectives. And the general issues raised are really important ones, as when Elizabeth says that "Hanford seems to have existed in a culture of lies and deceit from its very beginnings. None of which is surprising, given the site's reason for existence. Evil naturally begets evil." Meghan cannot agree with all of this, so it is not just a one-sided rant.
Elizabeth herself gets involved in dramatic action when she has to try to rescue Meghan and drive, with no previous experience, a large four-wheel-drive truck. She wondered "if young people could ever truly understand the dimensions of what they demanded from the old". Eventually, she is shrewd enough to spot the murderer before anyone else, but this is not really the main attraction of the stories. It's her religious beliefs that really matter. But she is never dogmatic and would go along with the old Quaker saying: We know hardly anything of God - and what we think we know is almost certainly wrong.
Recommended, particularly if you enjoy the author's gentle and dry (Quakerly?) style.
For information about the author's geological work, see her Rock Doc page on the Washington State University site.
|The cover of the first book well suggests the simple Quaker faith, the description of which is the strongest point of all the books.|