Sister Mary Helen
(creator: Sister Carol Anne O'Marie)

Sister O'Marie
Sister Mary Helen is a retired nun, aged 75 when we first meet her, who, before her retirement, had spent 50 years teaching in parish schools, although she had a master's degree. "Sometimes she had served as a principal; most often as an eighth-grade teacher". She "had managed to avoid retirement or even the thought of it for the last five years. At least, she figured it was about five years. At that time she had begun to lie a little about her age".

Now that she has at last been retired she wears "a smart, navy blue suit, her gray hair styled in an attractive feather cut. If you looked carefully, you could still see the faint skin discoloration where her coif had once covered the sides of her face". She also wears bifocals that are always slipping down her nose so constantly require readjusting. She is a humorous, redoubtable and very active old lady, and an avid reader of mystery novels that she hides in prayer book plastic covers. She keeps thinking of what her favorite detectives (such as Perry Mason or Charlie Chan) would do in similar circumstances to those in which she finds herself. Appropriate quotes from other authors also keep occurring to her, but she can never remember where they come from. She is good at acting all innocent, if necessary. As one of the other nuns tells her, "you are a class act .... I know an academy performance when I see one."

Sister Mary Helen was created by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie (1933-2009) who took her vows in1954 so has been a Sister of St Joseph of Carondelet for some sixty years. After she retired from teaching, she signed up for an adult education course in writing, and during it began her first mystery novel. She has now written eleven novels, all featuring Sister Mary Helen. "A good murder mystery," says O'Marie, "is about the ultimate power play between good and evil. It's today's morality play. The good guy always wins." All her royalties go to her Order. In 1990, although officially retired, she started ministering at a daytime drop-in center for homeless women that she co-founded in downtown Oakland, California.

She said that she based Sister Helen on a real Sister Helen whose name and personality she had borrowed. She had been her first principal when she began teaching in 1954. When the real Sister Helen eventualy read the first novel, she complained that there was too much use of "old dear" and "old girl", so this were much reduced in future books.

A Novena for Murder (1984)
A Novena for Murder gets the series off to a good start. Newly retired 75-year-old Sister Mary Helen isn't ready to give up yet, and arrives at Mount St Francis College for Women in San Francisco, where she is to teach history. Not that she does any teaching in this book, because she gets too involved in tracking down the murderer of a college professor who seems to have had dubious connections with Portuguese immigrants.

One of her fellow nuns, Sister Therese, begins a novena to St Dismas ("the Good Thief"), convinced that the saint will reveal the murderer within 9 days. "Never underestimate her clout," Sister Mary Helen tells another nun who is not too sure about the value of her doing this. "Look at it this way. Put yourself in Dismas's place. What would you do if, out of the blue, right in the middle of enjoying a peaceful eternity, Sister Therese got on your case?"

Other interesting characters include Sister Mary Helen's old Irish friend, "good old, plump, pleasant" Sister Eileen, who keeps on producing appropriate old "sayings" from the old country, which Sister Mary Helen suspects she makes up to suit the occasion. They make a good couple. When a policeman addresses them as Sisters, Eileen whispers, "How ever does he know we're nuns?" Sister Mary Helen explains, "Maybe it has something to do with no makeup, no jewelry, conservative blue suits, and the cross we each have in our lapels."

Then there are the two police detectives, Inspectors Dennis Gallagher and Kate Murphy, who, despite initial suspicions, eventually get round to respecting the old nun (although Gallagher still wishes she would keep out of their way). Kate is living with her partner, Jack Bassetti, but is at first very resistant to the idea of actually marrying him as "she's not ready yet". The author does not avoid describing at least part of their physical relationship: "Tenderly he moved his broad hand under her (Kate's) granny gown. 'Damn these things,' he said, pushing the flannel aside. 'I don't know how grandpas managed to be so productive if grannies really wore all this.'
Kate giggled, ' Grannies,' she said, edging closer, ' were very cooperative.' "

Sister Mary Helen must, one suspects, have considerable similarities to her author. She has a very down-to-earth approach to life. When asked by Inspector Gallagher whether she's likely to be transferred anywhere else, she replies, "My next change, Inspector, will probably be to Holy Cross Cemetery". She makes a determined and shrewd detective. When Bassetti is sent by Kate to size her up, he soon realised that he is the one being sized up. "Those old hazel eyes hadn't missed a trick".

Sister Mary Helen does not hesitate to complain to God, "Now look what you are letting happen. Two murders ....". She "was glad God seldom talked back, because she was pretty sure she knew what He would say. 'Hold on! People murdering one another is not exactly the way I plan things! But relax, old dear, and stick with Me. We'll work it out!' And she knew He was oh, so right."

It makes an entertaining story, even if it rather slows down towards the end. Recommended.

Advent of Dying (1986)
In Advent of Dying, old Sister Mary Helen, who has now been two years at the Mount St Francis College for Women, has been asked to take the job of alumnae moderator. "I'll give it a whirl," she agrees.

She is persuaded to visit the swinging Sea Wench bar to hear Suzanne, her normally quiet and secretive secretary, learning to belt out the blues. But the girl is brutally raped and stabbed to death with a silver letter opener, and it is Sister Mary Helen who finds her body. She hurriedly phones Inspector Kate Murphy whose partner Jack complains, "I can't believe this. Two, no three, bodies in two years. That's got to be a record."

Sister Mary Helen examines the office computer used by Suzanne, looking for clues. "She studied the machine. Its blank screen looked harmless enough. If timid Suzanne could master it, why not she? It would take more than a machine with a harmless name like Apple to intimidate her, she ruminated, refusing to give way to the gnawing thought that something named Apple was said to have begun all man's troubles."

But she could not find what she was looking for, so persuaded two other members of staff, her old friend Sister Eileen and young Sister Anne, to accompany her to the Mud and Mineral Spa where she hoped to question one of Suzanne's friends who worked there as an attendant. So there they ended up: "each was wrapped, mummy-like, in a white flannel sheet". It was while being covered in slimy mud that Sister got a chance to question her attendant, but she seemed too frightened to say anything. But for Sister Mary Helen, of course, that was just the start of the trail.

One of her suspects is a young fitness freak, Arnold Shultz. Sister Mary Helen tells Eileen that he "reminds me of a description I just read: 'He was a spare little man, full of dash and supremely confident in his own ability'. She paused triumphantly.
"Now, where did you read that?" Eileen asked.
"In the mystery I was reading just before Advent, just before Suzanne was murdered."
"Was that the description of the murderer?"
Mary Helen could feel her face redden. "No," she admitted, as much as she hated to, "it was the description of the police inspector."
All this is amusing to read, and makes a good story, although it is a bit slow moving and you could not call it very exciting. But the worldy-wise Sister Mary Helen is still a character to be reckoned with.

The Missing Madonna (1988)
The Missing Madonna introduces us to members of OWLS, the Older Women's League (older not old, as Sister Mary Helen is quick to point out). They are apparently a real organisation and "advocates for women's rights". Sister Mary Helen, now a "resource person" at the alumnae office at Mount St Francis College, had found that her new job "consisted chiefly of meeting people and going out to lunch". That's why she had been so pleased when Erma Duran had suggested she should join OWLS. "In addition to doing some good, she'd be keeping her mind active and maybe even her waistline thinner".

Then her old friend and fellow OWL Erma suddenly disappears, and so Mary Helen and four other OWLs, together with Erma's daughter and Al Finn (at whose Bistro Erma used to work as hostess, although she was really long past retiring age) set to work to track her down.

Mary Helen is still an entertaining character, with a pleasant sense of humor. She can look like "a cross between Joan or Arc and Miss Marple", but she seems to spend so much time " pushing her bifocals up the bridge of her nose", that the repitition is beginning to get tedious.

And nothing much happens until right at the end when there are just a few exciting pages. Meanwhile Kate, the police inspector working in homicide (who is very aware that she shouldn't really be involved in a missing person case) is worried that, after five months of marriage, she still is not pregnant - but you can guess how the book ends. It is all, as a quoted review in Library Journal puts it, "unfailingly cosy".

Murder in Ordinary Time (1991)
Murder in Ordinary Time is a much more interesting story. Sister Mary Helen is about to be interviewed by beautiful Christina Kelly, a local television station's leading investigative journalist. But just before Christine can ask her very first question, she falls over dead, having eaten a Christmas cookie laced with cyanide.

Helped, as always, by her old friend Sister Eileen, Sister Mary Helen grows increasingly determined to track down the murderer. She is now 76 or 78 (she says she is not sure which), and is glad that it is Inspector Kate who has been assigned to the case. Kate's colleague, Mary Helen's old antagonist Inspector Gallagher, is not so happy when he picks up the phone: " It's that old nun again," he tells Kate."Another goddamn corpse".

'Ordinary time' is normally the quiet time of the Roman Catholic calendar, but not for Mary Helen who begins to wonder if she herself was really the intended victim. She believes she is "spiritually prepared to die .... God and she had been friends for so long that the thought of meeting Him face-to-face delighted her. Besides he owed her a few explanations." Even so, she decided she'd prefer a little more warning.

Kate is heavily pregnant and Gallagher hopes that she won't give birth while out with him so that he has to deliver the baby. So does Kate. Meanwhile she and her husband Jack are busily searching through books of babies' names to find ones that they both like - and she is getting increasingly anxious about his/her safe arrival. All this seems to matter to the author just as much as the main murder plot, and certainly she writes about these characters, and about Jack's overbearing Italian mother, with understanding and affection. So she's quite happy to fill several pages with details of a surprise "first baby shower" of gifts for Kate. And you know that nothing too dreadful is likely to happen - except, of course, to the murder victim.

The character of Mary Helen is particularly interesting for what it seems to tell us about the author herself and her convent background. It's one where the nuns can watch Super Bowl football on their television and enjoy their own convent party while they do so. And they can laugh and joke. Very different from the grim convent life described by some other writers.

Murder Makes a Pilgrimage (1993)
Murder Makes a Pilgrimage is nearly all set in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Sister Mary Helen, now aged 77 (or, she wonders, might it be 78?), accompanied by Sister Eileen, have won a place on a free pilgrimage there. The rest of the party is made up of a group of rather tiresome and mostly very unappealing fellow Americans, led by an incompetent young man known as Pepe, helped by his new "consultant", Maria José, who turns out to be the niece of the local police Comisario.

Mary Helen discovers the glamorous Lisa strangled to death in a saint's crypt in the cathedral. There follow three attempts to get rid of Mary Helen herself, as when she is given a sudden shove to push her in the path of el botafumeiro, the huge swinging censer in the cathedral. This provides one of the few exciting moments in the story.

The author is always at her best when writing about the convent/school background that she knows so well. Here she is a long way from home, and there is a lot more talk than action. The best parts are the interaction between the two old nuns, as when Eileen is doing a crossword puzzle. "What is an eight-letter word for a meddler," she asked Mary Helen. "it begins with the letter b."
'Mary Helen thought, but only for a moment. "Busybody," she hissed, "and you are not funny. You know perfectly well that I am simply a student of human nature." '

There are long descriptions too of Inspector Kate's baby John, back at home. Is there a bit of wishful thinking here? But the main plot just isn't all that interesting.

Death Goes on Retreat (1995)
Death Goes on Retreat sees Sister Mary Helen and her old friend Sister Eileen off to spend a week at the supposedly idyllic St Colette's Retreat House, in the redwoods some 65 miles from San Francisco. Unfortunately, though, the Sisters arrive a week too early and find that the House is hosting a convention of hard-drinking priests. As one of them explains, "Wine is a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy". When a former student is found murdered, the Fathers come under suspicion. But Sister Mary Helen soon finds other suspects.

The priests are well delineated, as are the resident Sister Felicita, Detective Sergeant Bob Little, Jack's voluble Italian mother, and the angry cook Beverly. The interaction of the priests is well handled too, as they talked "about their ministries, about the people they knew in common, about new trends in theology, world affairs, and the latest doings of San Francisco's rather autocratic archbishop, Norman Wright, whom Father Ed Moreno (the comedian amongst them) irreverently called 'Absolute Norm' ".

Sister Mary Helen is well aware that "Accepting death, especially sudden and violent death, takes a great deal of hope and trust in God's promises. Hope, like all other virtues, demands years of practice." But when, asked by Father Ed Moreno, who she thinks the murderer is, can only say curtly, "I do not have the slightest idea". And she hadn't. "Not for the first time, she wished she had the enviable powers of some of the detectives who peopled her murder mysteries. She wished that in the presence of the guilty, the hairs on the back of her neck would stand up, or that her mustache, if she had one, would twitch. It would make life so much simpler."

Sister Eileen suspects that the unlikable and aggressive Sergeant Luddy may be in cahoots with the aggressive cook Beverly, but Sister Mary Helen tells her, "Wishful thinking. Only in mystery stories are the two least likable characters the murderers. And not always then." Of course, in the end, all is solved, but the development of the story is slowed down by the inclusion of a rather prolonged sub-plot concerning her old friend Inspector Kate and her husband Jack, and whether or not they will move house.

Right at the end, Sister Mary Helen ponders that the retreat "was all about facing our shortcomings, acknowledging our strengths, and allowing God to love both. For she knew with certainty that God does love each of us individually ... Maybe that was the fruit of any retreat: realising that great love and then spending our lifetime trying to extend the same unconditional love to one another." This sounds very much like the author speaking, but typically she immediately comes down to earth when Sister Elena interrupts her: " 'You will never guess what Sister Felicita asked me.' Eileen's wrinkled face glowed with amusement.
Mary Helen bit. "'What?'
'She asked me if I would consider staying on and being the cook here at St Colette's. And ...' She paused. Mary Helen waited for the punch line. 'And ...' Eileen's bushy eyebrows rose. 'She wanted to know if I thought you, old dear, would like to stay on and be my assistant!'
'Me? The cook's assistant?' Mary Helen repeated incredulously.

Death of an Angel (1997)
In Death of an Angel, Sister Mary Helen is back at work in the alumnae office at Mount St Francis College. Working with her old friend "part time retired" librarian Sister Elena, she tries to help a fat and troubled young library assistant, Angelica Bowers, with her weight problem.

Sister Mary Helen has to spend a lot of time phoning potential donors for funds (as did the author herself), and is amazed when the phone is answered by an equally surprised Inspector Gallagher who, as always, is not at all pleased to find she is involved, but tells her that the woman she phoned has become the victim of a serial rapist-murderer. This leads to much more violent action than is usual in this series, and the plot certainly holds the interest, even if, at times it rather strains credibility.

There is real bitterness and hatred in the scenes betwen Angelica, who is in her mid thirties, and her domineering mother: "Mama did not tolerate disrespect or disobedience or even any back talk". And, although largely confined to bed and requiring constant attention, she would even hit out at her subservient daughter with her cane. Angelica's awkwardness and inexperience of looking after herself is well shown when she goes on a spending spree with her mother's credit card, and finds herself at the hands of a persuasive young salesman whom she can't resist. There is an equally unhappy relationship between a strange young man, Elvis Greenwood, and his cloying mother, but all this nastiness is treated (at first at least) in a realistic way, so that the reader gets really involved in the unhappy events.

Inspector Kate's husband Jack gets shot by the escaping rapist, and ends up desperately ill in intensive care. Kate, usually busy looking after 2 year old John, spends much time at the hospital with Jack's voluble old Italian mother Loretta, for whom, for the first time, she begins to feel some respect for her love and shrewdness. It is these developing relationships that add to the book's appeal.

As Mary Helen reflects at the end: "The only possible answer to suffering - difficult as it was to hear - was to embrace it with faith and with courage and with hope." And, after a violent climax involving both Angelica and Elvis, she reflected: "In God's mercy, the Angelicas and Elvises of this world will not be judged by our standards .... but they will be judged with the unconditional love of a compassionate God who knows and understands the ability of each of us and what each of us was given. Difficult as it is for the human heart to accept, at this very moment, the victims and those who victimised then might be praising God together with full and forgiving hearts. So much of life and death and suffering and love remains a profound mystery!" It's quite a thought with which to end a detective novel. Recommended.

Death Takes Up a Collection (1998)
Death Takes Up a Collection has interesting characters, including Sisters Mary Helen and Eileen, a whole group of well differentiated suspects, and Inspector Kate (who has returned to work as young John is now three) who once again warns the two nuns to stay out of danger. She "loved them both. Over the years they had proved extremely helpful, both personally and in solving several murder cases. Even Gallagher (her police partner) admitted that. But they did have a tendency to become pesty. Maybe tedious was a better word". Gallagher is still inclined to regard the two nuns as murder suspects. Kate asks him what motive they could have had. "Maybe life at their college was getting a little dull. After all, it's almost," he stopped to count on his broad fingers, "three months since their last brush with murder".

Kate's injured husband Jack is now back at work, although temporarily in a desk job, but it is young John who, Jack's mother explains, would really like a brother or sister. This starts his parents thinking.

Many incidents, such as a priest's rush up to the altar, having mistaken the nuns' hymn practice for the start of Mass, sound altogether convincing. And the awkwardness of a parish council meeting when the members have to confront their priest with their suspicions about him rings all too true.

But the basic plot (an investigation into the murder of this particularly unattractive priest, Monsignor Joseph Higgins) is the conventional every-suspect-has-a-motive one, and lacks excitement. There are just too many "bickering adults". As Mary Helen pointed out, "This is really a 'locked-room' mystery", but "even in locked room mysteries, there is always an explanation". And it is she who (eventually) finds it.

One of the suspects, Fred Davis, bitterly resents the way that the monsignor had failed to say masses for his dead wife, Mildred, who, as a result may, he said, be languishing in purgatory. Sister Mary Helen points out, "You can't believe that God would detain Mildred's entrance into eternal happiness because ..."
"Don't tell me that a woman of your age is into these modern theologians who don't believe in purgatory?" he growled in a tone that made it clear that this was not the time to try to tell him anything. Mary Helen "imagined poor Mildred had had any purgatory she was going to have by simply living with Fred".

The book ends with Mary Helen chatting to God: "Dear Lord," she sighed. "It is so much easier on us human beings to bury a saint than to bury a sinner".
"Isn't that what all this Lent and Holy week business is all about?" the Lord answered gently. "That I died to save sinners? Saints and sinners, I love them both. And, dear Mary Helen, when all is said and done, you may be very surprised to find out which is which!"
"Who is who," Mary Helen corrected softly. She couldn't help herself.
Perhaps only an author who is herself a nun could imagine such dialogue as this.

Requiem at the Refuge (2000)
In Requiem at the Refuge, Sister Mary Helen ("an almost eighty-year-old woman who still feels thirty inside") follows the example of her author
and starts work as a volunteer in a women's homeless shelter, called the Refuge, founded by young Sister Anne, caring for street women, ranging from hookers to has-beens. Indeed the book is dedicated "To the women of A Friendly Place (the center than the author had herself had co-founded), who have taught me so much about courage and optimism".

Anne was "worried about where the money would come from. The Shelter operated on a shoestring .... but then a small miracle would happen: a hundred dollars here, a shipment of toilet paper there .... Anne was beginning to count on these miracles for the everyday existence of the Refuge. So far, she had never been disappointed .... She had been at the Refuge for nearly a year, but it had taken her only a few weeks to realize that she could not solve the (women's) problems. At first she'd become angry and frustrated. Slowly she was realising that all she could do each day was be there with a little help and a lot of compassion." Could all this be autobiographical? It certainly sounds like it.

Mary Helen still lives in the convent at the college, but is temporarily without Sister Eileen who has had to go back to Ireland to nurse her dying sister. However there are lively and convincing portrayals of life in the shelter and of the women who use it (such as Peanuts, Venus and Crazy Alice), albeit less convincing ones of a rich lawyer, his wife and his mistress who get involved in the violent and rather unlikely death of one of the women. The body, of course, is found by Sister Mary Helen, but on this occasion she is very slow off the mark to identify the killer.

In the end it is not this main plot that holds the interest so much as the affectionate portrayal of the nuns and police inspectors Kate and Gallagher. Gallagher looks increasingly run-down and Kate has a job persuading him to go for a check-up. Both of them fear he may have cancer. And you are left caring more about this than about the identity of the murderer.

Mary Helen badly misses Eileen, but consoles herself with the thought of what Eileen would have said had she been there. And the other nuns can be pleasantly sharp-witted. When the college principal died on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, Sister Ursula said piously, "It's a lovely feast day to die on, anyway. To ascend into heaven on the same day that Our Blessed Mother did".
"Unless you're the one who is doing the ascending," snapped old Sister Donata.

The Corporal Works of Murder (2002)
The Corporal Works of Murder has Sister Mary Helen investigating how
a pretty young woman, covered in numerous layers of clothes, a new arrival at the refuge, came to be shot in the street outside. She discovers her true identity, then are are two more murders (both of the bodies being discovered, of course, by Mary Helen) before the rather unlikely murderer (identified by Mary Helen) shoots himself.

Mary Helen has grown to love her work at the Refuge ("much to everyone's surprise, including her own"), thus "proving that some old dogs can learn new tricks", and the scenes and characters there really come to life. The same is true of Inspector Kate and her husband Jack who are described with affection, and humor too. The other nuns, although they seem to spend a surprising amount of time "glued to the television set in the Sisters' Room" also seem very real. It is the crooks who are rather less convincing.

Kate tries to keep Mary Helen out of danger. " 'What she wants, if you ask me,' Mary Helen said, her words clipped with anger, 'is to scare me to death'. Fat chance, Anne (the young nun who runs the refuge) thought .... Mary Helen grinned. "If anything, Anne, I must admit I feel spurred on.' Anne's stomach fell. Exactly what she was afraid of." As for Mary Helen herself, "Nobody wants me not to get hurt more than I do." And with this author, we can be pretty sure that nothing really nasty is going to happen to her, so this means there's less inherent excitement in the story than there might have been, although there's no lack of incident.

At the end, Mary Helen "was still idealistic enough to hope that all policemen were honorable, all priests and nuns holy, and all parents loving. How many times did she have to remind herself that there were no perfect people?" Then she remembers the words of the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich: "I can make all things well and I shall make all things well and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well." Sister Mary Helen "could hardly wait!" You again get the feeling that the author herself closely identifies with her.

Murder at the Monks' Table (2006)
Murder at the Monks' Table is a rather lightweight story about a trip to Ireland where Sisters Mary Helen and Eileen attend a week-long Oyster Festival in the little village of Ballyclarin. Sister Mary Helen (just like the author) has had to leave others to look after her work at the homeless center back home.

The nuns much enjoy themselves, despite the murder of an obnoxious reporter whose body Sister Mary Helen discovers in a ladies' lavatory (she doesn't know whether to call it a toilet or rest room). As their driver piously says about the victim: "None deserved it more". Eventually the nuns eavesdrop on a conversation in which the murderer confesses all - so not all that much detection is required.

The most convincing character is young self-conscious Garda Liam O'Dea, who is very embarrassed to be sent to a local dance to sniff women suspects to see if he can detect a particular perfume. Previously he has quite rightly been very worried that his diffidence had for three days prevented him passing on to his bosses vital information that the nuns have provided him with. Sister Helen could not approach the Police Inspector directly with this information because he had sternly warned her off: "We do not have our nuns, or anyone else for that matter, poking into our homicide cases, putting themselves into danger. Is that clear?" It doesn't seem in character for Sister Mary Helen to be quite so subservient. And would an Irish Inspector use the American term homicide?

It all reads like an outsider's view of the Irish scene, based as it is on a single visit there by the author. Despite the murder and two attacks, it's just a bit too sentimental to be really convincing, but it's still quite good fun.


There is a brief appreciation of her on the Mystery Fanfare site.



Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!



Return to CONTENTS LIST

A Novena for Murder cover
The covers, from the first book shown above (paperback} to the last book below (hardback), are pleasantly restrained.
Murder at the Monks' Table cover
Return to
CONTENTS LIST