The Rev Claire Aldington
(creator: Isabelle Holland)

Isabelle Holland
The Rev Claire Aldington is 35 when we first meet her. She was a qualified psychologist who, after her clergyman husband's death in a car accident five years before, had been ordained for two years in the Episcopal Church. She inherited money from him so can afford a comfortable New York apartment where she tries to cope with Martha, her 15-year-old anorexic step daughter, and Jamie, her 8-year-old son, while she works as a pastoral counselor at St Anshelm's church, where she is one of the assistant rectors, helping with the services on Sundays, but conducting private and group therapy during the week. Many, but not all, of her clients are members of the church.

She describes her hair as "slightly waving, heavy and thick, it was a dark reddish brown that, fortunately for the time I had at my disposal to spend on it, looked best in a simple cut. As fror the rest, underneath a square forehead, I had hazel-green eyes, a white skin that had to be kept from beaches, freckles, a body that was slight and rather flat, but nice feet - my one real vanity. I looked down at my triple A pumps, the heel a little too high to be in perfect taste with my gray skirt, black blouse, round clerical collar and gray jacket." Her late husband "had once said in an unusually frivolous flight for him, that she had the legs of a chorus girl. The thought seemed to give him much satisfaction."

Claire can be quite an awkward customer, conscious as she is of her previous not entirely happy marriage, and her rather prickly relationship with some of her colleagues, and particularly, in the first book, with her difficult step daughter. She is a "practical, pragmatic and rather down-to-earth" person who is split between enjoying the comfort of her inherited money and working for the poor and needy. She does not have to work to earn her living - but feels she has a duty to do so.

She prefers taking services to preaching. She had tried Buddhist meditation while training but "For me it didn't work .... My more disorganized Christian method of abbreviated prayer, occasional one-way conversations with the Deity, bursts of conviction about the Presence of Reality and a maundering contemplation most successfully practiced when washing the dishes or watering the plants - all these worked better for me."

Isabelle (Christian) Holland (1920-2002) was born in Basel in Switzerland, and educated in England and the United States. She was the daughter of an American consul. She earned a bachelor's degree from Tulane University in 1942 and settled in New York, She became the publicist for several of New York's top publishing houses. She wrote numerous novels, including many prize-winning books for children, but the first of them was not published until she was past her mid-forties. She was still writing in her eighties.

A Death at St Anselm's (1984)
A Death at St Anselm's is set in a wealthy New York church known for its ambitious programs to help the homeless, and led by The Rev Norbert Shearer, who is determined to let nothing stop his charitable work. But then Dick Grism, the wheelchair-bound church treasurer is found murdered, hit on the head with a bookend taken from his own shelf. The prime suspect is The Rev. Claire Aldington, who herself tells the story. Struggling to keep her little family together after her husband's death, she cannot believe that anyone would think her a killer, but, determined to clear her name and help her anorexic step daughter, she risks her life to unearth some deep-hidden secrets.

Claire has real problems with her step daughter, Martha, who tells her she should never have married her father, and subsequently runs away from home. Clare loves her young son Jamie who speaks in a rermarkably precocious way for an eight-year-old, as when he says about Martha, "She and I have never been buddies. But she was getting to the point where every week or so we'd actually have a conversation without her being sarcastic about my weight or Motley (his dog) or something. But it's back to the sarcasm now. I don't know. Something's bugging her. But she's not going to tell you what it is."
"Why not?" asks Claire.
"Because then you'd go back to not paying so much attention to her. To paying more to me."

Meanwhile two witnesses claim to have seen Claire leaving the murder scene, and her boss, The Rev. Norbert Shearer, and most of her colleagues seem to think her the guilty party - but not Brett Cunningham, the banker who had been the previous church treasurer, whom she began by disliking as he had refused her the extra funding she wanted for her therapy sessions. "People don't respect what they have not paid for," he tells her. But, as she gets to know him better, she finds him an altogether more attractive character.

Claire realises that to clear herself, she will have, however reluctantly, to find the murderer. After disguising herself as a delivery boy, she eventually makes contact with her step-daughter, who has fled to her grandmother's. She goes on to identify the murderer and, at great risk to herself, confronts him with his crime. It makes a dramatic finish to a well-written and interesting story. Recommended.

Flight of the Archangel (1985)
Flight of the Archangel is narrated by freelance jounalist Kit Maitland, who is sent on what at first seems to be a routine assignment to write an article about the old Van Reider mansion above the Hudson, which now belongs to the local church. But the church no longer has a use for it, so is negotiating its sale. Kit also tries to find out about a previous young reporter, Crystal Maloney, who had been found dead from a drugs overdose after trying to follow up a story there.

Kit soon realises she is being watched (a lot of mysterious watching goes on in all the Isabelle Holland novels), then, in the mansion itself, she discovers a recently murdered body. This gets the story off to a strong start. Next, someone tries to push her in front of a speeding underground train. Always, at the back of her mind, is the strange compelling memory of her half brother Joris, whom , as a young girl, she used to worship and who had mysteriously disappeared just before his graduation at Princeton, when Kit was only twelve.

Kit turns to The Rev. Claire Aldington, one of the assistant rectors at St Anselm's for advice, and the two of them, together with Simon, Kit's separated husband who, when an alcoholic, used to beat her up (another common theme in Holland novels), together eventually sort things out. It would have been interesting to have seen more of Claire. It is she who tells Kit, "I believe that Christianity is true. But I also believe there are truths in other religions that we have somehow missed. And anyway, when you get to the heart of each, most of them say exactly the same thing." But what about that strange Eastern mystic, Swami Gupta Nanda, who wants to buy St Cuthbert's? Nobody seems to know anything about him, but Claire has her suspicions.

It all leads up to a distinctly melodramatic climax, complete with shootings, knockings unconscious, carryings-off and arson. The arch villain who was "intelligent and fiendishly clever" even "slipped a large pair of scissors from his pocket and started sawing away on the rope" down which Kit was about to escape. Then when Simon calls, "Kit, are you all right?" (a rather odd question in the circumstances), the villain "stopped sawing at the rope, put his hand in his belt and produced a pistol, which he now aimed at Simon." But Kit "bit his hand as hard as I could". And it all ends happily - for our heroes at least.

A Lover Scorned (1986)
A Lover Scorned follows the discovery of the mutilated body of a woman priest with more shock discoveries and murders, and The Rev. Claire Aldington of St Anselm's finds herself not only involved, but the tormented victim of a series of menacing phone calls. Then she herself finds her life in real danger as she is pursued, and her 12-year-old son Jamie disappears. It all builds up into a really exciting climax.

Claire has a difficult time of things, not only with adolescent chauvinist young Jamie, but with her fiancé, the merchant banker, Brett Cunningham, who seems to deliberately cut himself off from her for reasons that she cannot understand. One of his staff puts her off yet again with the message, "I have the strictest instruction not to tell anyone where Mr. Cunningham is - not even you."
"You can tell him, if and when he calls, " she angrily replied, "not to bother to get in touch with me." But then "the moment Claire hung up she cringed at her childish behavior, which was without dignity or balance." She emerges as a very human character.

Luckily, though, she enjoys good relations with her now perceptive 18-year-old step daughter, Martha, who gives her good sensible advice of the sort that Claire realises she might give her own clients. For a therapist, Claire seems strangely unable to help herself. She can get muddled, as when she reminds Brett of "a rector St Anselm's had once, The Reverend Norman Shearer - a complete activist." But , as we know from the first book, Brett had known Shearer long before Claire had! Or is this just the author rather clumsily (for once) trying to fill in background information for a new reader?

Claire took comfort from the liturgy. "What meditation was to eastern adepts, she decided, the liturgy was to her .... To hear the great words of the Book of Common Prayer slide through her mind and consciousness served for her the same purpose .... There was great relief in knowing that her secrets, however paltry and disreputable - such as childish jealousy - were no secret at all to the Mind that was in and around her, in Whom she lived and moved and had her being."

Other interesting characters include Lieutenant O'Neill, the policeman who has learnt that it pays to turn to Claire for help (even if she is not always prepared to share all her knowledge with him), the "reserved and somewhat withdrawn" new Rector, The Rev. Douglas Barnet, and his formidable if rather odd sister, and Althea the bag lady, whose dog Claire finds herself obliged to look after.

The author is a good story-teller and, as the story develops, builds up the suspense and excitement, so that you really care what happens. Recommended.

A Fatal Advent (1989)
A Fatal Advent is set just before Christmas. The Norwich Boys' Choir from England is expected shortly to join with St Anselm's own choir in a festival of Advent music. The rector's Christmas guest, a former dean of St Paul's in London, has already arrived and is staying with Claire and Brett, who have been married for almost a year. Then the dean's body is found at the foot of the parish house stairs, his head crushed in. This is followed by another murder, and the chief suspect turns out to be Brett.

Claire has her usual hard time of it, what with her 14-year-old son Jamie disappearing, the strange unexplained behaviour of Brett (has he lied to her?), a rather awkward relationship with the new rector, threatening anonymous messages, ominous warnings from the psychic old Letty, a spate of unexplained petty thefts, doors that suddenly appear unlocked, mysterious intruders, and unhappiness at the choir school. The first five of these seem reworkings of ideas from the previous book, so the plot soon starts to creak a bit and it all seems too familiar.

It seems odd too that Lieutenant O'Neill does not stir himself more vigorously to track down the missing Jamie, especially as he never seems to have other cases to work on, except those involving Claire. The excitement and suspense of the previous books is much more subdued now, and he final denouement is not really made very convincing.

Claire herself has an increasing problem to control her temper. "At one period in her life, her quick temper had fulfilled all the expectations that went with her red hair. But only rarely since her training had it got the better of her." But she struggles on to keep things going, helps her clients, and even looks after one of the choir boys whose mother has been murdered and needs help. But the basic plot seems a bit tired, as if the author was rather running out of ideas.

The Long Search (1990)
The Long Search is quite different to the previous books. Perhaps the author had realised the need to break away from the church background, and make a fresh start. Unfortunately The Rev. Claire Aldington gets almost left out in the process.

It is Janet Covington who tells the story. She is a senior editor at a New York publisher, when she finds out that she may be a hemophiliac and sets off on a long and dangerous search to warn her long-lost illegitimate daughter, now aged 18. En route, she is pursued by threatening phone calls, there are two murders, she is kidnapped, almost run over and, on another occasion, her car is nearly sent crashing over a ravine.

She has encouraged one of her authors, an ex FBI man, to take up her cause, so he bobs up to rescue her from time to time, and they fall in and out of love. It's a highly unlikely story, deriving from her student days as an extreme radical, and leading up to a melodramatic, and totally unconvincing, climax. She had asked Claire to help her too, but unfortunately Claire only appears briefly and plays a very minor part in what goes on.

At one point Janet explains, "In my role as editor I often had to imagine arcane motives for bizarre acts, especially in cases where the plot demanded it and the writer's inventiveness had given out." Certainly the behavior of the main villain of this story seems bizarre in the extreme - and his motives are nothing if not arcane.

There is a bibliography on the Fantastic Fiction site, and an obituary on The New York Times site.

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


A Death at St Anselm's cover
The books mostly went in for sensational covers (above), but the last book (below) looked altogether more distinguished. A pity its content did not live up to its cover!
The Long Search cover
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