Sisters John & Hyacinthe
(creator: Dorothy Gilman)

Dorothy Gilman
Sister John belongs to the Abbey of St Tabatha near Bridgemount in Pennsylvania. She has some practical abilities (she is the only member of the small community who can mend the old printing press) but, like the other nuns, has little knowledge of the modern world. "Word had filtered through to them of Inflation and Muggings", but she did not know really what the words meant. But she was always ready to learn. it was her nature "to fix and change things", and she certainly gets things done.

Sister Hyacinthe was an expert in herbs and "knew how to make a very good dinner out of herbs, weeds and ground nuts". She "was as dark as Sister Joan was fair, given to small superstitions, a certain amount of brooding that drew her brows together frequently, and a tendency to expect the worst." There was, or so Mother Clothilde (the founder of the abbey) had said, "not a great deal to do with her." "Except enjoy her, Sister John had pointed out, but she appeared to be the only one who appreciated Sister Hyacinthe's fey qualities".

Their creator, Dorothy Gilman (1923-2012), who was the daughter of a minister, was educated at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She married in 1945, had two sons, then got divorced after 20 years. She is best known for her 14 Mrs Pollifax books, featuring a feisty widow who becomes a CIA agent, but she had previously been known for her books for young readers, published under the name of Dorothy Gilman Butters (Butters was her married name). She only wrote the one book featuring Sister John: The Nun in the Closet.

A Nun in the Closet (1975) is an entertaining story mostly set in a huge old house that has been left to the abbey by a mysterious Mr Joseph Moretti. Sisters John and Hyacinthe are sent to stay at the house and recommend what should be done with it. But how will they get to New York State without any money? They accept the loan of a delivery van, and Sister Hyacinth is taught to drive by the delivery boy. But this is a skill that she never really masters, and, when the sisters line up to see them off, "the van pulled away, narrowly missing a sycamore and tumbling a post in the fence as it turned into the main road. 'Benedicamus domino,' said the abbess. 'Deo Gratias,' responded the sisters."

"They were stopped three times by policeman, once for driving only twenty miles an hour on the thruway, a second time for driving over eighty miles an our, while a third police car overtook them with sirens shrieking because Sister Hyacinthe had seen skullcaps and puffballs growing beside the thruway and parked to gather a few plants". As she later told Sister John,"The police officer thought these were cannabis sativa, but I explained that it was scuttellaria lateriflora, but he said you couldn' trust anybody these days". Sister Joan "knew that God watched over them but she couldn't help feeling that Sister Hyacinthe's driving must tax Him to the limit".

The house itself turns out to be dark and fearsome, perhaps haunted too. Sister Hyacinthe wonders what they should do if they encounter the late Mr Moretti walking the halls. "Thank him for bequeathing the house to St Tabitha's," said Sister John briskly, "and then say in a polite but firm voice, 'In the name of Jesus Christ go away,' which I believe is what one says to ghosts".

The nuns run into further problems, when they discover a suitcase full of money hidden down a well. "One should never doubt miracles," says Sister John. "Mr Moretti's will included all the furnishings, didn't it? And the well, " she added reasonably, "simply happens to be furnished with money".

But they discover a wounded man who has been shot, hiding in an upstairs closet. He begs them not to send for a doctor or the police, and asks for sanctuary. "Sanctuary," murmured Sister John, looking pleased. A religious man, wouldn't you say, Sister Hyacinthe?"
"Or a hunted one," put in Sister Hyacinthe indignantly. "We'll both be murdered in our beds tonight". In the end they decide to disguise him as "Sister Ursula" so as to protect him from the foes gathering outside. But his beard soon makes him look less than convincing, and he keeps complaining about Sister Hyacinthe's herbal dishes: " 'I don't appreciate clover blossoms in my soup,' he said at dinner, predictably and with venom."

Then there's a secret room, 50 jars of strange tasting sugar, a group of friendly drop-outs, complete with their apparently clairvoyant Eastern guru, Bhanjan Singh, much taken with making profound remarks like: "Make no friendship with an elephant keeper if you have no room to entertain an elephant". But he seems to know Sister Hyacinthe's secret that she talks to her plants, and he has a good story of how, when God had finished making the world, "He wanted to leave behind Him a piece of His own divinity, a spark of His essence, a promise to man of what he could become, with effort. He looked for a place to hide this Godhead because, he explained, what man could find too easily would never be valued by him." But where could he hide it? "God smiled, 'I'll hide it in the most inaccessible place of all, and the one place that man will never think to look for it. I'll hide it deep inside of man himself'." Sister Hyacinthe says, "Now I know what a guru is".

Before long both the police and the mafia arrive. It is the mafia leaders who complain, "Christ it's hard to get reliable help these days ... They don't know the meaning of work any more, all they want is the money ...the Puritan ethic's shot to hell".

it's all great fun, and a real contrast to all the other more earnest nuns to be found in detective fiction. And there's a plea for the townspeople to accept migrant workers too, so it isn't all just frivolity. Recommended.



There is an informative Dorothy Gilman fan website.



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A Nun in the Closet cover
There's much more comedy than horror in the book - not quite what the cover suggests.
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