(creator: Veronica Black)
Sister Joan is 35 years old when we first meet her. She had joined the Order of the Daughters of Compassion as a postulant five years before, then, after becoming a novice, she had taken her final vows two years ago. The Sisters of Compassion is a young and small Order (invented presumably by the author) said to be founded by a young woman, half Dutch and half English, who had died at Dachau. The nuns wear an "ankle-length grey habit and short veil over a white coif", together with black tights and sensible laced shoes (as advocated by their founder who had been in advance of her times by rejecting the old-fashioned wimpole with its heavy lace), but they seem little affected by more modern trends in the church.
It is a semi-enclosed order, "there being some latitude permitted if a nun was required to work beyond the enclosure". As it is both an active and a contemplative Order, nuns are encouraged to use their talents. As Sister Joan's prioress told her "What you must always do is to use those talents to the glory of God, always remembering that the religious life takes preference". As well as the usual vows to chastity, poverty, and obedience, there is also one of compassion. "That last is peculiar to our Order," as the Prioress reminds her nuns.
It had been a late vocation. Sister Joan had been a student at an art school where she had had met and fallen in love with a fellow-student Jacob, but he was Jewish and, although non-professing, this had prevented their marriage. ("Darling Jacob" had been "as trapped in his own culture as she was in hers" and had wanted any children they had to be Jewish, so Joan would have had to convert). But that "hadn't been the real reason why she had chosen the religious life.... I used to think it was the barrier of religion (that had separated them), but now I do think that it ended because something better came along". But she keeps on thinking about Jacob and remembering his sneers about convent life.
Sister Joan is just 5ft 2in tall, but she's a lively woman with a mind of her own: "someone," as her Mother Prioress describes her, "who is not tied hand and foot by convention". "On the rare occasions when she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror she was always agreeably surprised to discover that she looked about ten years younger than her actual age, her cheeks rosy and her dark blue eyes marked only by the faintest laughter lines." As an old nun tells her, "You're the kind of person that people do confide in. You look sympathetic, you see, and if nothing in the world would shock you".
She's a resolute character who can say that, "One thing I've learned that being a nun hasn't altered is that people who aren't willing to risk getting into trouble usually don't get things done". We are told that "her besetting sin was that of impulsiveness". We are also told that her besetting sin was "idle curiosity". It was also "a too ready tongue". Then it is explained that "Spiritual pride ... was probably her besetting sin". Her problem, she says, "is that I like company very much indeed, and that often interferes with my contemplative life". Then she has problems with obedience too. No wonder that she's got plenty to write down in her faults diary. "At the rate she was going," she reflected wryly, she would soon need a new book of faults".
She devotes much time to prayer but "If she ever made it through the heavenly gate, she decided, she would love to find out exactly what Revelations was all about". God, she knew, worked in mysterious ways. "Too mysterious sometimes," she thought. Then when she seems to get no answer to a prayer for guidance, she remarks, "The Creator seemed to be silent this morning. If He had had as fitful a sleep as herself she thought it very likely He was having a lie-in". Altogether, she's a lively and interesting person.
Sister Joan is the creation of Veronica Black, whose real name was Maureen Peters (1935-2008), who also wrote under the names of Catherine Darby, Elizabeth Law, Judith Rothman and Sharon Whitby. In all she published some 80 novels, most of which were historical romances with titles like Enchanted Grotto and Lover Dark, Lady Fair, but she also wrote eleven detective stories featuring Sister Joan, nearly all set in Cornwall. She also published short stories in many magazines.
She was born in Caernarvon in North Wales, but ended up living in Suffolk. She was awarded a degree in English and Philosophy at the University College of North Wales in Bangor, then went on to take a Diploma in Education. She taught children with learning difficulties before taking up full-time writing. She had four children of her own, including a boy who was adopted, but provided a minimum of biographical information and avoided having her photo shown on dust covers.
A Vow of Silence (1990)
The trail leads on to pagan goddess cults and much else you might not expect to find in a well-run convent. No wonder Sister Joan can't help thinking, "What the hell's going on here?" She remembered that her previous Mother Prioress had warned her, "The problem with leading a celibate life is that such a life is against nature. The natural, physical impulses must be channelled onto other outlets, otherwise there is always the danger of hysteria or fanaticism. I am of the opinion that many who were named as saints would be regarded as mentally unstable if they were evaluated by psychologists today".
It all makes quite a gripping if ultimately unconvincing story, that is written with real skill and humour. Take the recreation hour for example: "All that the members of the Community did was to recreate the events of the day in minute and tedious detail from Sister St Jude having lost and found her spectacles to Sister Patrick having seen a cloud in the shape of an angel. As Sister St Jude lost her spectacles somewhere or other every day and as Sister Patrick was always seeing angels - often in places where no self-respecting angel would have touched down - conversation lacked sparkle."
There is a dramatic build-up towards the end, but it does not lead up to quite the great showdown one might have expected. But it's enjoyable to read and the characters of the saner nuns are well described. Recommended.
A Vow of Chastity (1991)
Then she hears about an au pair girl who had mysteriously disappeared from Samantha's house (a house that "crouched on the flowerstrewn moor like some wild beast waiting to spring"). There seems a strange sense of evil around the place, and she's not the only person who feels this. Eventually, the bodies of a boy who has disappeared and later that of one of the nuns are found in the convent chapel. Sister Joan is able to work out who the killer must be - and it's certainly a surprise. It's a bit too unexpected to carry conviction, in fact, as is the whole denouement.
The nuns are realistically shown as quite sentimental, possibly even naive, at times, as when Sister Joan and another nun come across a sexually precocious young Romany girl, a 12 year old, splashing about in a pool, with a boy of the same age, both quite naked. The nuns see it as a scene of utter innocence: "It reminded me of Eden," says one. " ... Such joy, don't you think?"
Sister Joan doesn't always remember to ask her Mother Prioress' permission for absolutely everything she does (this includes breaking and entering), and she wonders if she should spend some time in retreat. Mother Dorothy tells her that this "is simply a desire to escape ... Selfish indulgence if you were to undertake it at the present time. On the other hand you certainly need a period of self examination" so she agrees to send her off to a Scottish retreat for a month in the summer vacation. It is interesting to see how the relationship and mutual understanding of these two strong characters is slowly developing. Altogether, despite the ending, this remains one of the better books in the series, with a real feeling for convent life, and the life of prayer. Recommended.
A Vow of Sanctity (1993)
Towards the end, there is a surprise revelation that a most unlikely person has been surreptitiously making money, on the side, by secretly writing romantic novels. There's a nice comment about such novels that "the dialogue has to be believable, even if the plot isn't". Is this the author laughing at herself? It's certainly true of the Sister Joan books, where the plots are nothing if not unlikely.
Sister Joan is never afraid to express herself."It's healthier to be slim," she says, and when it comes to nuns, " I've never understood why Our Blessed Lord should be saddled with all the fat, plain women". As for her lonely cliffside cave, she reflects that "its main advantage lay in the fact that it might prove an excellent means of disposing of an elderly nun who had become a bit of a nuisance in her convent. The irreverent notion made her want to giggle". She remembers that her Mother Prioress had recently once warned her, "Humour is a splendid attribute to possess, provided that it is not indulged in at inappropriate times".
Numbers of vaguely attractive young men often appear in these books, but Sister Joan thinks back to her one time lover Jacob, rather than these callow youths. Indeed she emphasises the clumsiness of such well-meaning characters as the young Brother Cuthbert, sorry though she is for him being landed with such a wimpish name. When she's told, "You're bloody sarcastic for a nun", she admits, "Meekness is not one of the virtues I feel most comfortable about". Altogether she's a realistic, intelligent person who makes these books fun to read - and they are quite short too, about 200 pages.
A Vow of Obedience (1993)
So instead of going back to the teaching she enjoys, Sister Joan is asked to act as a temporary lay sister. "The lay sisters did most of the cooking and shopping; they kept earlier hours and went to bed later than others in the convent. They slept in the two cells that led off the kitchen", and it was part of their duty to wake the community each morning. "I must warn you," pointed out Sister Joan, "that my cooking isn't very good - and that's an understatement." "We are always in need of extra penances," Mother Dorothy said, her mouth twitching slightly, but then explained that the novice, Sister Teresa, could cook and would help her in the kitchen.
Sister Joan welcomed the freedom to go shopping in the car. Mother Dorothy, she reflected, "for all her prissy ways, knew her nuns". But then Sister Joan goes on to discover the bodies of two young Catholic girls, both dressed in wedding white and wearing garlands of leaves, and both strangled. And her cosy understanding with Detective Sergeant Mill is somewhat upset by an abrasive new arrival at the police station, Sergeant Barratt from Birmingham. Sister Joan meets up too with his lonely, apparently bullied, wife, and tries to help her.
Mother Dorothy, as always, encourages her to do her duty by helping the police, although she is slightly concerned about the way Sister Joan and Sergeant Mill seems to be thrown together. "I can't speak for Sergeant Mill," Sister Joan said with a glint of humour, "but for myself - Mother Dorothy, I already have a Bridegroom and I'm not about to settle for second best". Meanwhile, Mill continues to find her puzzling: " The oddest mixture of mediaeval superstition and hard common sense I ever knew".
She suspects that a mysterious cowled figure that she has glimpsed has a connection with the crimes and has an idea who it must be. But, as she tells young Sister Marie, "It would be very wrong of me to start guessing out loud". Then, seeing Sister Marie's worried look, she goes on, "Sister, you don't think I'm the one with the proof who gets murdered just as she's about to pass it on to someone else, do you? Things don't happen like that in real life". No, and they don't happen in books either if you happen to be Sister Joan, but I wouldn't fancy the chances of any other character who said this.
It's a good story with the usual realistic interplay of characters. I particularly like old Sister Gabrielle who wickedly enquires at table, "How soon do you think it will be before someone else is murdered?"
,A Vow of Penance (1994)
Then the first victim dies. Could it be suicide? Sister Joan is sent to serve as temporary housekeeper at the priests' house and is unofficially encouraged by the prioress, Mother Dorothy, to keep an eye on things, although "in Mother Dorothy's opinion Sister Joan seemed to begin most trains of events that ended with the rule being, not actually broken, but certainly bent". But trees and then flowers are vandalised - and more people meet mysterious deaths.
It makes quite an interesting story, but its strength lies in the characterisation and in its convincing picture of convent life. Mother Dorothy is particularly well-drawn. "Bit of a tartar, isn't she?" is what a taxi driver comments. "A lot of a tartar," Sister Joan replies. But Mother Dorothy really knows and understands the nuns in her charge and is not without humour. When one of the local priests hears that she is sending him one of the nuns to him as a housekeeper, he is so pleased to get some help that he bursts out, "I shall welcome her with open arms". "Metaphorically speaking, I hope," Mother Dorothy said dryly.
A Vow of Devotion (1994)
In the absence of any lay sisters, Sister Joan, aged 38 now, is still carrying out this task and is responsible for the cooking (an unfortunate experience for the nuns), shopping, and other household tasks. Luckily she habitually feels hopeful and optimistic. She realises she is "not an ideal nun, although she tried hard to fit her lively and tempestuous nature to the even tenor of community life". She can still be quite outspoken, as when young rather pompous Father Stephens is talking about some new-age travellers that have arrived in the district: "Many," he says. " must feel rootless, seeking their pleasure in drugs and er - other things". "Sex, do you mean?" asked Sister Joan. "Father Stephens betrayed his youth by blushing bright red. 'I tried it once,' he said. 'Good Lord, Father!' She stared at him and he went, if possible, a deeper shade of scarlet as he said hastily, 'Marijuana, Sister ... A few of us got hold of some in school and smoked it ... Well, I only had a couple of puffs before I felt sick.' "
Sister Joan has to prepare the old schoolhouse to become an anchorage for a hermit for a year. The convent is pleased to receive even a modest fee for this. Then the hermit arrives. He turns out to be young Brother Cuthbert from Scotland, with flaming red hair haloing his tonsure, whom we previously met in A Vow of Sanctity. He said he was getting too comfortable in his old monastery "so I asked leave for a year's absence, somewhere I could be quite alone without any social activity ... I'd completely forgotten that your convent was in this area". Good-natured, if clumsy as he is, his lute-playing is particularly appreciated by the nuns, but he remains one of the author's more improbable characters. What with her friendship with him, and with the still cynical Detective Sergeant Mill (who sometimes reminds her of her one-time lover Jacob), she seems to enjoy remarkable freedom for a nun. As Mill tells her, "It never fails to astonish me how you walk a tightrope between being the perfect nun and a woman with strong opinions of her own." "That's one of your less perceptive remarks," she challenged. "Surely you know by now that being a nun never stopped anyone from having strong opinions". Well, not her anyway.
When young Sister Elizabeth gets murdered (murders tend to happen when Sister Joan is around), old Father Malone consoles her: "The doctor said that she (Sister Elizabeth) could have known nothing about it (the night-time attack on her). She went to sleep as usual and woke up in heaven. That can't be bad, eh, Sister?" "Not if you think so, Father ," Sister Joan "says politely. Privately the idea horrified her". Then Father Malone explains that the victim, although really not yet a novice, is to be buried in a novice's habit, as this would be "a nice gesture". "It must make Sister Elizabeth feel heaps better," Sister Joan says, tersely. "I'm sorry, Father. That was rude of me". "You remind me of my old mother back in Ireland, he replies, unoffended. "A tongue like nettles and a heart like roses".
All this interplay makes this one of the best of the books. Of course, you'll only recognise the murderer if you remember that he/she is always the most unlikely person. Recommended.
A Vow of Fidelity (1995)
Then a small boy is murdered, and more dark secrets are revealed. In the end, it is Sister Joan, of course, who confronts the murderer, being rescued once again in the nick of time by the ever-accomodating police (she has even started calling Detective Sergeant Mill by his Christian name, Alan).
Among the supporting cast is Alice, supposed to be in training as a guard dog, who, as usual, spends a lot of time lying in the sun or tucked up in her basket, and, Brother Cuthbert is still around but, apart from finding the boy's body, does little beyond praying and chopping wood. Old Mother Gabrielle is still in good form, though. When it is suggested that male guests on retreat might be invited to join the community in recreation time, and one nun announces that."We don't want men cluttering up the entire place," it is Sister Gabrielle who says audibly, "Oh, for a bit of clutter!".
Mother Dorothy remains remarkably supportive. It's not every prioress who would have started the whole thing going by encouraging one of her flock to spend a day in London, just to meet up with her old student contemporaries. Even Sister Joan finds this hard to believe: "You'd give permission?" Sister Joan's blue eyes were incredulous. ""In normal circumstances, no," Mother Dorothy said frankly. "However in view of the present situation in which we are placed it might be very useful for you to meet your old friends and tell them if they require a quiet period of rest, a recharging of their artistic batteries so to speak, then we can provide it at very moderate cost". Sister Joan "longed to ask if her superior had studied under Machiavelli" but thought better of it. All this gets the plot off to a rather creaky start and the equally unlikely ending, as always, comes as a real surprise. But I'd still recommend it.
Vow of Poverty (1996)
Helped by the ever obliging Detective Sergeant Mill, with whom she shares many a cup of coffee, and friendly young Constable Petrie (who "seemed determined to model himself upon all the slightly bovine policemen found in detective novels of the thirties"), she sets about helping to solve the mysteries. It seems odd that no more senior policeman ever gets involved.
There's less dramatic action in this than in some of the other books, but, despite the usual slightly creaking plot, Sister Joan herself still holds the interest. "Sister Joan, Mother Dorothy reflected, was a problem. She was one of the liveliest and most talented of the community" but Mother Dorothy is reluctant to encourage her artistic skills "suspecting that in the younger woman personal pride in her accomplishments was by no means dead. She also had an amazing capacity for attracting incident and excitement to her small, neat person. If Sister Joan were sent out for a country walk she was liable to be kidnapped by hijackers or stumble on a body".
And you may be quite sure that if, as in this story, some anxious person phones Sister Joan with important information that can't be divulged until they meet her for coffee next day, that person is certain to be murdered before they can meet. And when Sister Joan gets the feeling that someone is watching her (which in these books she frequently does), she's usually right. Sister Joan, of course, even when she's just been attacked, still hasn't learnt to go off and tell the police everythIng she knows, not at first anyway.
The tolerant and amiable old Father Malone is still around: "All good living people who obey the Creator will enter heaven," Father Malone said firmly. "The only difference is that while the Jews and the Muslims and the Protestants have a long, weary walk to the golden gates we Catholics will whizz past them in a bus".
And some of the old nuns are still a delight: Sister Gabrielle was "eighty-six years old and as tough as well-seasoned leather". Sister Joan found her at the chapel door, her walking stick raised in the air, having attacked and chased off a young intruder. "Sister Gabrielle, are you all right?"Sister Joan hurried to offer her arm which was impatiently shaken off, "Shut the door, child!" Sister Gabrielle said briskly. "I'm perfectly all right. The young lad will have a bad headache in the morning though. I caught him full on the bridge of his nose. Probably broke it". Then when Sister Joan asks if she need a doctor, she replies, "Of course I don't need a doctor. A cup of tea with a slug of brandy in it would be welcome though".
A Vow of Adoration (1996)
Sister Joan currently has no other set job to keep her busy but is, as she puts it, "the odd job nun". So when she warns her colleague, Sister Perpetua, that she may be a little late back to the convent, Sister Perpetua interrupts, "Don't tell me you've found a dead body ... You make a positive hobby of it. Not another murder, I trust?" On this occasion it seems that the victim may have died of natural causes, but it is not long before "another (person) had been murdered; two had vanished". (In all these books, towards the end, there is one of these helpful summaries of crimes committed, waiting to be solved.)
Sister Joan's quiet sense of humour keeps things going, as when Constable Petrie tells her that the body she had discovered had "one funny thing, though! His clothes were all quite decent, and his shoes were polished. I noticed that"."The result of your police training, I suppose," Sister Joan said. "I suppose that's true. We are expected to notice things the general public misses," Constable Petrie said modestly.
Encouraged by old Sister Gabrielle, who pretends that she needs a cup of cocoa so that she can get Sister Joan to drink it instead and tell her what she's up to, she goes on to admit that "There are moments, Sister, when I feel completely useless". "Welcome to the human race," Sister Gabrielle replied. But, even with the introduction of a macabre museum of life-like waxworks, it isn't really one of the more gripping stories, although Sister Joan herself is never boring.
A Vow of Compassion (1997)
There is rather a lack of exciting action, but Sister Joan still holds the attention. "The latutude I allow you astonishes me sometime," says Mother Dorothy, allowing her to go off for another meeting with Mill "in some public place". He is still amazed by the demands of convent life: " 'Two hours' meditation and a mass every morning, two hours' religious discussion and study in the afternoon and another hour at night!' Detective Sergeant Mill had exclaimed once when she had attempted to describe the unvarying daily routine. 'When do you get time to work?' 'That is our main work,' she had answered, stifling a laugh at the look of horror on his face."
Sister Joan sorts everything out in the end, but, as she admits, "It had been unsatisfactory affair altogether ... she had been slow to make connections, to pick up on clues".
Vow of Evil (2004)
Sister Joan is 46, and does not seem to have changed much since we last met her. Perhaps there's nothing more that the author can say about her. And there's a feeling of tiredness about the plot too. It lacks the invention and sparkle of the early books. It's all about a strange family of adults that move into the old postulancy house (no longer needed as there are no postulants) and subsequent odd happenings (including the kidnapping of a dog, the killing of a cat, and the discovery of the word SHIT written under a sink in the postulancy). Then two sudden deaths follow.
But when it come to mention of an all-pervasive feeling of evil, there's a feeling that we've been here before, and there's not enough going on to sustain the interest. Even a cloven hoof-print turns out to be have been written in black chalk. The new prioress (not Sister Joan, I'm afraid, although that would have given the author a chance to break new ground, however unlikely such an appointment might sound) seems to act and even look much as the previous one did. However she does ask Sister Joan to use her artistic talents (at last!) to illustrate some stories about the saints that she is preparing for publication. Sister Joan is impressed by their quality - and it seems a publisher is interested in them too. It's all just a bit too cosy. As is the ending, when two new postulants arrive out of the blue.
Brother Cuthbert (who has had permission from his prior to stay on indefinitely in the old schoolhouse. His prior was obviously relieved to get rid of him) is as clumsy and good-natured as ever, and apart from chopping wood, has "no practical skills whatsoever". Instead he says things like, "I am always so pleased when I see evidence of kindness". Or, about the Inquisition, "How Our Dear Lady must have grieved over those poor souls dragged to the stake!". Then when Sister Joan tells him, "And now I must go and pray. We renew our vows soon and that means thinking about them", he replies. "I had forgotten! What a treat that will be for you all!". "I hope so," she said uncertainly.
Detective Sergeant Mill is now Detective Inspector Mill, and Constable Petrie has been promoted to sergeant. But Sister Joan "sees no point in telling either of them about the vandalism in the postulancy". Nor does she mention a strange figure she had glimpsed disappearing over a wall. She hasn't changed. But once again, the gentle interplay of nuns in the convent is well handled, but that by itself is not really enough to hold the interest - not if we've read the previous books.
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|No, this isn't really Veronica Black, but, as she never seems to let her photo appear on her books, I've had to use an image of Sister Joan from the cover of A Vow of Devotion. There must, one suspects, be quite a lot of the author in the character - if not in her picture.
|The picture of a mock-pious nun that appeared on the cover of the American edition of the first novel really doesn't do justice to the lively Sister Joan.
|You wouldn't guess from this latest dust cover that the author has a well- developed sense of humour - or, then again, perhaps you would.