Felicity Howard and Father Antony

(creator: Donna Fletcher Crow)

Donna Fletcher Crow
Felicity Howard is one of only four women ordinands, and the only American student, at the Anglo-Catholic College of the Transfiguration at Kirkthorpe in Yorkshire. She had gone to Keble College, Oxford, studying Classics, on an exchange program and then decided to stay in England, spending a year teaching at a private school in London before deciding that the church “offered far more scope for applying her skills in Greek and Latin (and truth to tell, more scope for her stage skills)." She is in her mid-twenties, has a "long blonde braid" and while at college had had "a couple of serious boyfriends". To Father Antony, she was "the most disturbingly delightful young woman he had ever met". She can also be rather rash and headstrong, and boasts "a very active – some would say over active – imagination."

Father Antony is a church history tutor at the College of the Transfiguration. He and his older sister became orphans when he was 10 and she was 14. They were taken in by an aunt and uncle in Blackpool who did not really know what to do with them. Anthony took refuge in his books and then turned to the church. He had taken his MA at the College of the Transfiguration then served as a priest in a small rural parish before coming back to the college as a lecturer. While there, he had begun to feel a real drawing to the monastic life and was wondering whether he should take his vows - but was he really called to celibacy?

He has the disconcerting habit of going every now and then into "lecture mode" and coming out with lengthy descriptions and explanations, as described below. He admits, “I know I do go on a bit – well, a lot, actually." Felicity was very aware of his “tousled hair, furrowed brow and lopsided smile” and thought his "the kindest face I have ever seen". But he has a secret that he very much wants to keep to himself.

Donna Fletcher Crow (1941 - ) grew up in Idaho. She majored in English at Northwest Nazarene University and became an English teacher before "retiring to become a full-time mother". She has been a lifelong Anglophile and history buff and has written more than 40 books, mostly about the history of Christianity in England. She became part of the newly emerging inspirational romance market but her real interest was in writing historical fiction though she went on to write mysteries too.

She had come from an evangelical background but found herself increasingly attracted to High Church worship, and became a Companion of the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, Yorkshire, which served as a model for her fictional Community of the Transfiguration, described below. She and her husband live in Boise, Idaho, and are the parents of four adult children, including a daughter who was a student at Mirfield. They have 11 grandchildren.

A Very Private Grave (2010)
A Very Private Grave describes how Felicity Howard, a young American studying for the Anglican priesthood at the College of the Transfiguration in Yorkshire, is devastated when she finds her beloved Father Dominic bludgeoned to death and Father Antony, her church history lecturer, soaked in his blood. When the Father Superior sends Father Antony to investigate the crime, she talks the Father Superior into involving her too in a treasure hunt that takes Father Antony and her to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, to Durham and various out-of-the way sites in northern England and southern Scotland, searching for a secret brotherhood that has some connection with the body of the 7th century St Cuthbert which had been buried in Durham Cathedral - and possibly hidden by the monks at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The background is convincingly described, and the author is obviously writing about places that she has been to and thoroughly researched. As she says, "Background is specially important to me" and she certainly brings it to life, and her own enthusiasm for the places she describes is quite infectious. This is one of the main strengths of the book, as is the depth of her historical research.

What is altogether less convincing is the story, with its long list of apparent coincidences and improbabilities. The author herself admits that "For me, plot is the most difficult aspect of mystery writing." So, although the story gets off to a dramatic start with the murder of Father Dominic, it passes belief that the Father Superior would encourage Father Antony (who is actually wanted by the police on a murder charge) and Felicity (who is only a student) to go off together to hide from the police so that the pair of them can investigate clues (about a possible treasure?) that Felicity has found in a journal that Father Dominic had given her. And it all ends with an "insurance investigator" producing a pair of handcuffs and shackling the villain. Insurance investigators may be able to do this in the USA for all I know - but not in England! No wonder Felicity admits, "It's hard to believe".

The lead in the investigations is usually taken by Father Antony, with Felicity developing from being a rather brash self-confident young woman ("She could rise to any challenge, and her determination to succeed in this male-dominated world knew no limits") to someone who knows herself rather better. She had "learned how shallow many of her motives had been. Where she was to go from there, she had no idea. But one thing she knew - she wanted to delve deeper into the world that had opened to her. She had glimpsed a new reality and she wanted more of it. She was a different person from the headstrong, overconfident young woman who was so insistent on her own rights such a short time ago." She has become an increasingly interesting character, who eventually shares her doubts with Father Antony about "violent, personal evil - the kind I didn't want to believe in. Evil happening to good people."
Father Antony tells her, "Wish I had answers for you. Nice, pat, easy answers. If there are any, none of the wisest men of the ages has ever come up with them .... I'll tell you what I do know though, and that's where the good, the beauty and the joy in the universe come from. And that's enough for me to be getting on with .... And I'll tell you something else. I can't prove it, but I ardently believe that the good far outweighs the evil."

Then there is Harvard professor Jonathan Breen (Felicity "felt so drawn to this intriguing, charismatic man") who keeps bobbing up unexpectedly just when she most needs him. But she is intrigued too by Father Antony's lengthy lecturettes, as when he describes Cuthbert's call: "What should he do with his life? Cuthbert wondered as the bright August day turned to dark, starless night. Cuthbert sat alone on the bare hillside tending the drowsing sheep. His fellow shepherds were sleeping too, but Cuthbert would never choose to waste these hours in sleep. These were the best, the most valuable hours of the day. In the still and darkness of night he had what he most cherished: peace, quiet, time to be alone with the creation and its Maker.
That night, though, was different. The air seemed to vibrate. Clouds moved across the sky, changing the shape of the dark. And then it happened. The still peace of the covering sky ripped apart. A beam of dazzling light emblazened the blackness. A pool of light seemed to form around Cuthbert. As he stared, transfixed, a host of angels carried a soul of surpassing brightness to heaven in a globe of fire.
The next moment word reached them that the holy Aidan, the Light-bearer, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died. Now Cuthbert knew. This was what he had been waiting for. Here was his call to arms, the sign to take action he had been waiting for without realizing it.
On horseback and armed with a spear, Cuthbert appeared at the gates of Melrose Abbey and asked to be admitted as a monk. 'Behold the servant of the Lord!' The prior exclaimed and welcomed him in."

This is a dramatic description, but is it the way that even a church history lecturer would really speak? Meanwhile Felicity is having a rough time of it, being nearly drowned by the incoming sea on the Lindisfarne causeway, shot at by a cross bow, swallowing a specially made mint cake that had been carefully filled with glass (!), sharing a newly dug grave with a fresh corpse, and being marooned on a deserted island. Then she fails to identify the murderer until it is very nearly too late.

This is the first of a The Monastery Murders series. The opening chapter of the next book is included at the end of this one.

A Darkly Hidden Truth (2011)
A Darkly Hidden Truth describes how impulsive American theology student Felicity Howard is asked by tutor Father Antony to help him find a valuable missing icon. But should she have anything more to do with Father Antony now that she is seriously considering becoming a nun? He for his part had been considering becoming a monk - but he had given this up hoping for a “life with this brilliant, impulsive, stunning, infuriating young woman who had turned his world upside down." So "the incongruity of Felicity joining an enclosed community of sisters that still wore traditional habits and spent their days in prayer left him speechless." But what ever happened he knew that “things would would never be the same again."

She soon decides that she can combine detective work with discovering more about what would be involved in becoming a nun by taking several mini Lenten retreats to different convents. Then her "impossible" mother turns up unexpectedly, another icon disappears, and a good friend gets murdered. And her mother keeps on bobbing up unexpectedly throughout the story.

It's a highly unlikely plot although there are occasional interesting references to the 14th century anchorite Mother Julian but even these are not helped by Father Antony's highly elaborate and fanciful descriptions that had made him “the most popular church history lecturer the college of the Transfiguration had ever known". So he starts his account of Mother Julian's life with the description of her when she was (possibly) just plain Gillian: “The last of the daffodils had faded from the green hills around Norwich, but the wallflowers still shone a vibrant gold. The fresh, May-time beauty of land and air called to the young woman who had always so delighted in them. Always, with an abandon that belied her thirty years, she would run barefoot through the tall grasses, arms outstretched and face lifted to the warmth of the sun. Always she would raise her voice in a merry trill of joy with the robins and wrens. But not today. Today Gillian was dying." But she wasn't, of course. It's all made to sound far too sentimental. Even Antony describes it as a "fairy tale". So he does not make an altogether convincing church historian.

Naive Felicity had fondly imagined that she could take her vows almost immediately, but it was lucky for her that things weren't as easy as that as she soon has other things to worry about: “She had had the distinct feeling last night that if she had sat longer in the lounge, Antony would have reached out and taken her hand. And then she would have had to decide whether or not to let him hold it. Far better to avoid such scenes altogether."

But it isn't long before Anthony gets himself kidnapped (this part gets quite exciting) and Felicity has to concentrate on discovering what has happened to him. Luckily, though, she had had years of ballet training so when an assailant lunges at her "wielding a hefty candlestick, growling like an animal", she is able to perform “a perfect jete en tournant, throwing one leg to the side and executing a half turn away from her attacker. Her assailant, already in forward momentum, struck his head on the corner of the vessel of chest and fell to the floor.“ And this is only the start of the melodramatic denoument.

Felicity and her mother get rescued, of course, although oddly enough the rescue itself is never described to us, and the final revelation of the identity of the arch villain defies belief. But inevitably it all ends happily when Felicity declares that, “I think I quite fancy being a vicar's wife. That could be considered a calling don't you agree?" And Antony “didn't realise until he heard the applause that he had kissed in the middle of the crowded refectory."

An Unholy Communion (2013)
An Unholy Communion describes how Felicity Howard Is on her way to join her fellow ordinands for the hymn-singing on Ascension Day, when, from the top of the tower at the College of Transfiguration, a black-robed body hurtles over the precipice and lands at her feet with a "shuddering thud". He is clutching a piece of paper with a strange symbolic drawing featuring a horned snake emblem that then mysteriously bursts into flames. Felicity's fiance, Father Antony, recognizes the corpse as that of Hwyl Pendry, a former student, who had been serving as Deliverance Minister in a Welsh diocese. But all this does not stop them joining the youth party led by Father Anthony that is to follow in the footsteps of St David all the way from Caerleon to St Davids in Wales. The journey gives Antony plenty of opportunities to deliver more of his "you-are-there style (stories) that had made him the most popular lecturer in the college." The author reproduces these at length and in italics which make them quite awkward to read.

The journey is described at even greater length and although people get lost every now and then, or start seeing things, it all gets distinctly tedious, even though the strange horned snake symbol keeps reappearing and Anthony and Felicity become convinced that something paranormal is going on. Had Hwyl been the victim of occult attack? They look in on his widow and investigate the dead man's bed, with Antony even going so far as to mix some salt and water and make the sign of the cross over it before sprinkling it with holy water. You can't say he doesn't try, even if, as he tells Felicity, "I've never done this before. All I know is that Satan does give power to his devotees. Even if we don't really understand it, it doesn't do to scorn it."

Then one of their party, 13-year-old Adam disappears. Could he be intended as a living sacrifice in a satanic black mass? It's a remarkably silly plot, leading up to a totally absurd climax, and its slow pace makes it quite a challenge to read. Felicity, who admittedly has got a lot to worry about, wonders, "How could so many things go wrong in such a short time?" Even her relationship with her fiance never gets beyond a chaste kiss.

According to the author, "All the occult occurrences in my story were fictionalized accounts of events recorded in the above non-fiction books (she provides a list of them) or based on reports from people to whom they happened." But adding them all to a youth pilgrimage takes the author, like Father Anthony, rather out of her depth.

The author has her own informative website and there is a Wikipedia article about her, as well as an interview on the Cafe of Dreams site'

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A Very Private Grave cover
The cover has a rather tenuous connection with the content, but the story is well researched and has an interesting background.
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