“Unholy Order: Mystery Stories with a Religious Twist”

In 1995, nurse, mystery writer and prospective single mom Serita Stevens traveled to Romania to adopt an abandoned 9-month-old baby girl. So appalled was she at the conditions in the orphanage at which she finally met her future daughter, she started Hugs and Hopes–Romania to help care for the orphans and abandoned children in a country still struggling to recover from the ruin and desperation caused by the Ceausescu regime.

In “Holy Orders 18,” Stevens lines up prominent mystery writers, all of whom are donating their royalties to the organization. Besides supporting a good cause, this collection of short stories is also fun. While not “serious” literature, “Holy Orders,” perhaps unintentionally, gives a pleasant overview of the state of “pulp” mystery fiction.

As the reading public has become larger, what were previously just genres have become elaborate marketing strategies. Mystery, romance, science fiction, action, police procedurals all have their own sets of authors, magazines, even publishing houses. Here we get a collection of the techniques and themes of contemporary “bloodless” mystery short stories. While each has a religious setting of some sort, the twists of plot dominate.

Some of the now-familiar conceits of mystery writing surface in an amusing ways. Two stories, for example, are set in medieval Europe, a favorite haunt these days for ingenious plot turns in recast whodunits. Both Margaret Frazer and Mary Monica Pulver feature an English Catholic ecclesiastic in the role of detective by default.

The most harrowing stories are cast in the first person. Two of those in Stevens’ collection, “Widow’s Peak” by local author Rochelle Krich and “Remembered Zion” by Carolyn Wheat, both revolve around the continued unfolding of suffering entailed by the Shoah. Instead of solving some mystery of crime, as do the other stories, they solve a mystery of self.

Stevens’ own contribution seems to some degree autobiographical, as it centers around an observant Jewish woman’s quest to adopt a baby in Romania. The story also features, amusingly, an inadvertent vampire. Even vampires, Stevens’ tale would have us believe, yearn for yamim Ha-Moshiach, the coming of the days of the Messiah.

Anne Perry and Ralph McInerny’s contributions are classic examples of mystery misdirection, befitting the two arguably most well-known authors in the collection. Perry’s narrator, for example, is in the mode of James Stewart’s role in “Rear Window,” the passive watcher who figures it all out. McInerny brings his famous Father Dowling into play once again. One wishes that the late Harry Kemelman, author of the Rabbi Small series, were around to add his two talmudic cents to Stevens’ mix.

A pleasant way to spend an evening, and, besides having some fun, you’ll get to help a good cause.