Politics & Religion

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by Barbara Ross, staring out my study windows at the beautiful colors of a New England fall

I haven’t touched much on politics or religion in the Maine Clambake series. The books are intended to provide diversion and relaxation in a complicated world that feels like it is spinning ever faster. So like sex and gore, I have left these topics “off the page.”

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about them. Without either, my town would be incomplete and so would my characters.

Politics

Maine is a truly purple state with Republican and Independent senators and two Democratic congresspeople. The political views of my characters reflect that mix.

In my imagination Sonny, my protagonist Julia’s brother-in-law, is conservative in his political views and in life. He believes in the old ways. He lobsters like his father did, and works at his wife parents’ clambake. When Julia arrives in Clammed Up, he fights every change she wants to make at the clambake even at the risk of it going under. But later in the book he reminds Julia that he’s been there, faithful and loyal, year after year. Where has she been?

Restauranteur Gus Farnham is far more conservative that Sonny. I write in one of the books that he doesn’t accept credit cards or cash apps, and would be happier if the U.S. would return to the gold standard.

At the other end of spectrum is Julia’s boyfriend Chris. Raised among grandparents, great-uncles, and great-aunts who worked in the paper mills, saw mills, and canneries, he’s got an old-fashioned trade unionist point of view. Whenever Julia weaves romantic tales about her mother’s wealthy ancestors and the life they led in their mansion on a private island, he’s there to remind her that their wealth came at a great cost to working people–like her own father’s family. Julia’s sister, Livvie, has twice teased Julia about her boyfriend being a “commie.”

I haven’t written about politics in my fictional town of Busman’s Harbor. I would like to center a mystery around a New England town meeting someday. Murderous rages and shouted death threats are, if not common, certainly not unknown.

Religion

Maine is cited in most surveys as the least religious state in the U.S. I’m not really sure why the population of Maine is so irreligious, because the state was colonized (in the second attempt) by the same Scots-Irish people who settled the lower part of the Appalachians. But there is a strong live-and-let-live culture here. An “I don’t want anybody, including a preacher, telling me how to be” outlook.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t churches, synagogues and mosques, because of course there are.

Busman’s Harbor has two churches bordering the town common. One a typical, white New England Congregational Church. The other is some kind of mainstream Protestant church, Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian. It hasn’t been in a story yet so I haven’t had to declare a major.

Our Lady Queen of Peace in Boothbay Harbor

The Catholic Church building, I fully admit, I modeled on the gorgeous one in Boothbay Harbor. My fictional church was originally a smaller church built to fill the religious needs of the Irish servants of wealthy summer people. French-Canadians like Chris’s family arrived in town later. Then came summer people, as the fortunes of Catholic immigrants rose in succeeding generations. The church building was expanded with the increasing demand. The congregation worships in the big church nave in the summer and in the basement in the winter.

Finally, in my imaginary Busman’s Harbor, there’s an Evangelical Christian church out by the highway. It was built much later than the other churches, when people realized parking would be important for a church. None of the churches downtown have enough.

The Snugg sisters, we’ve learned in the books, are stalwarts of the Congregational Church, known by all in town as the Congo Church, its parishioners, the Congoes. The sisters attend in the off-season but are way too business Sunday mornings during tourist season. Besides, their minister goes on vacation for the month of August and they dislike the one who fills in for him.

Julia’s mother, Jacqueline, was raised Episcopalian and she’s never found a church in town that suits her. She bounced back and forth between the Catholic Church, for the ritual, and the mainstream Protestant Church, (whatever it is), never fully joining either congregation, which only reinforced her outsider status. But, when her husband was dying of cancer, people from both churches drove him to chemo and showed up, along with many other townspeople, with covered dishes. So maybe she’s not as much of an outsider as she thinks.

Gus Farnham is at his restaurant at five in the morning, seven days a week. If you were to ask him about his religious beliefs, he would tell you it’s none of your g-d business. So I haven’t asked him.

Religion plays a central role in some mysteries, like Amish mysteries, or mysteries that have clergy as sleuths, or our own Edith Maxwell’s Quaker Midwife mysteries. But some, like mine, leave it “off the page.” (Or at least so far.)

Readers: What do you think? Politics or religion in your mysteries?

25 Thoughts

  1. Thanks for the shoutout! In my Cozy Capers Book Group series, Mac’s father is the UU minister in my fictional town of Westham, and she grew up going to services, so I’ve set scenes in the church (at off times) and in her father’s office in both Murder on Cape Cod and Murder at the Taffy Shop. But it’s true that most crime fiction I read doesn’t have a sleuth who is a member of a church. Because the author isn’t? I don’t know.

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  2. I’ve read very few mysteries where religion is the driving force behind the plot. If a religious aspect is part of characters makeup that’s one thing. But if their religion is the most important part of the character’s life, it tends to be a little less interesting to me.

    That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to that of course. The Faye Kellerman series featuring Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus has a strong religious aspect to the characters lives and I love that series.

    Politics play a lot better for me in more action driven thrillers as opposed to cozy mysteries. I read a lot of thrillers and they are usually driven more political themes.

    My town has a town meeting coming up at the end of the month so Barbara’s idea of setting a book around a murder at a town meeting would be an intriguing read.

    I guess it all depends on how the story comes out really.

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  3. Great post, Barb! While Sarah lives across the street from the looming Congregational Church she’s only gone to it for a sale, but it’s an active hub in the communityI know the DiNapoli’s are Catholic as are the Pellners. The only politics I’ve touched on are at the school board meeting in I Know What You Bid Last Summer. I so agree with you that I read for diversion.

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  4. I, too, read for diversion and escape. My preference skews to no politics. Religion is a different kettle — I enjoy Edith’s Quaker series and am a huge fan of novels that feature the Amish. Great post!

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  5. Thanks for this post, Barb. My ninth Baby Boomer mystery is “Politics Can Be Murder,” scheduled for a 2020 release by Suspense to time it with the Presidential election.My fictional small town of Fairport CT has lots of secrets!

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  6. Interesting post, Barb. The local Presbyterian church plays a role in my Deadly Edits series because it was the childhood church of my returning heroine and she has mixed feelings about rejoining the congregation after 50 years away. My next Liss MacCrimmon mystery, A VIEW TO A KILT, opens at a contentious town meeting in the fictional Moosetookalook, Maine. And of course some newcomer from away asks what “tarvia” is—there’s always one.

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  7. Great food for thought to start this week. I have town meetings in Goosebush
    They are such an important part of New England, and almost like the town sport. Politics in its truest form. I do think that our small towns offer the purest sense of what religion and politics can be.

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    1. In Murder Most Fowl (myy fourth Local Foods Mystery), I opened with a contentious town meeting taken, not quite verbatim, from ones I attended! Lots of heated opinions, for sure.

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  8. Great post, Barb! In my Allie Cobb Mysteries, the protagonist is Catholic and goes to Mass every Sunday with her Mom. Of course, when she’s in church, she tends to check out the congregation in her search for clues. That’s the extent of religion in my books. I think it makes Allie a more complete character, but it’s not a major factor in the stories.

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  9. Thanks for not including politics or religion in your books. I like them just for the state of Maine alone.

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  10. I was just talking yesterday about a series that was otherwise good but the main character made some pointless political comments, and they threw me out of the cozy. We’re talking national politics, too, not small town politics.

    Especially right now, it’s hard to bring some of those issues into a book, especially a cozy, without possibly alienating half your audience.

    And, since I read cozies to escape life, I much prefer your approach.

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    1. I’m laughing Mark because in these fraught times NOT saying something political is difficult. “It’s hot today,” can get you into a fist fight.

      My guess would be authors put those sort of comments in their books because in turbulent times, sometimes you wonder, “What the heck am I doing? I care about stuff. I need to speak up and be relevant.” But IMO it’s always better to create a world and characters that convey your feelings and concerns, rather than engage in polemics. This is one of the strengths of fiction, especially crime fiction.

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      1. So are you saying that the comment “It’s hot today” is a potentially hot topic?

        I’d agree with you on potentially feeling the need to put politics in the book, but the book I’m thinking about was published before the 2016 election. So the times were slightly different. (And only slightly, I know.) And these comments were definitely gratuitous. It makes me worry about what might be in the current books if I get that far in the series.

        I’m definitely with you that it is better to create a world in fiction than preach. If I want to be preached at, I’ll pick up a non-fiction book.

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  11. What an interesting and thought-provoking post, Barb. Of course, the mystery series that first comes to mind when religion is discussed are the Clare Fergusson/Russ van Alstyne mysteries by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Religion is an absolutely central to that wonderful series.(and Julia Spencer-Fleming will be the guest of honor at this year’s Malice Domestic [shameless plug]).

    The comment about parking really hit home, however. I grew up in a wonderful, but ancient home in Sacramento, not too many blocks distant from the state capitol building. My grandmother bought it long before I was born and used it as a boarding school. When I was about five or six, it had become evident that the house was far too big for us (my mother, my grandmother and me), the neighborhood was becoming less safe, and the maintenance on this more than 100-year-old home was becoming unsupportable. So we sold it to the Baptist church that was directly across the back alley from our house. Our house had a huge side yard, and the church paved it over as a parking lot. They rented the house out to a fraternity who essentially vandalized it, painting the solid oak front door bright red.

    Subsequently, the house itself was sold to a law firm who restored much of it. At about the same time, the house was declared a historical monument by the city council (alas, not because I lived there, but because a prominent California politician originally built and lived in it.

    Later, for some reason, the house on the east side of our house was physically moved to the space where the parking lot was and its space was turned into a parking lot. Don’t ask me why, because I haven’t a clue.

    So your comment about churches in urban areas feeling the pinch from the lack of parking really resonated for me.

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    1. I love this account of the “lives” of an old house. I am always fascinated by that stuff. Just Friday night I saw Edith Maxwell read from her Quaker Midwife series at the Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine. A house with an equally interesting history.https://victoriamansion.org/

      Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series is one of my all-time favorites.

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  12. I much prefer politics be kept out of mysteries with the exception of a little town meeting-type, but that, too, can get too heavy. As long as the religion that is a part of the mystery doesn’t preach I’m OK with it, but I don’t want to be told I’m bad or not good enough because of my lifestyle. Most cozy authors avoid these extremes and I have no problem with them. Like Mark, I read cozies to escape. I don’t want to get my feathers ruffled – there’s too much of that in the news.

    BTW, I love Edith’s Quaker series and Laura Bradford’s Amish series. They teach without preaching.

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  13. Not for me. If it works with the story then a small reference is fine. But I’m not particularly political or religious- I’m not opposed to it, I just want to have fun and get away from some of that when reading.

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  14. I don’t mind cozy mysteries mentioning religion or local politics. They’re a part of life. However, unless it’s an Amish or Quaker mystery or the main character is a priest, nun, etc. keep the religious part on the light side. Politics would be more if the story requires it. Unless someone writes a mayor or council person solving crimes.

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  15. I tend to avoid politics and religion in my writing. In my teaching career, those subjects were off limits. I don’t like in person discussions, right now nobody listens.
    Maine is the least religious? I thought my state, Washington, was 2nd to Alaska in that competition.

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