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From 'Sister Boniface' to 'CSI': Faith-filled Crime Solvers

| August 7, 2023 | By

Even if the detective is a flawed human being, every murder mystery story is about good vs. evil. Evil has been done to a human being, and now it's up to someone to seek justice for that -- first, by tracking down the culprit.

Whether it's with technology, science, or plumbing the depths of the heart, each detective has one real area of study: the human condition.

Sister Boniface

Catholic religious Sister Boniface (Lorna Watson) uses her intelligence and technology to help police solve crimes. Sister Boniface Mysteries has returned for a second season on BritBox (and airs on PBS stations), complete with all her wit and wisdom.

With a Ph.D. in chemistry, Sister Boniface manages to concoct the most useful tools and scientific experiments to get to the bottom of the mysteries.

Living in a rural English town in the 1960s, the sister also assists her fellow sisters with their wine business, which they use to help support their convent.

But Boniface proves she is more than a vintner as she helps the police with blood samples, fingerprints and more. This sister is even more than that, having been a code breaker during World War II.

So while she does use prayer a lot, it’s her intelligence -- and her clear-eyed but sympathetic understanding of human nature -- that leads to results.

It would be fun to see more interactions between Sister Boniface and the priest/detective main character of Father Brown (which also airs on BritBox and PBS).

So far, they've appeared once in each other's shows, but who knows? Maybe more joint collaborations are in their future.

Can you imagine Boniface giving Brown a ride on her Vespa? Stranger things have happened (and Brown -- or at least the actor who plays him -- did have a recent bike mishap).


Speaking of Father Brown

As with many detectives, Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton's creation is a keen observer. Like Sister Boniface, he's well aware of the proclivities of those in our fallen world but sees them through the eyes of faith.

Also, because he's a priest, Father Brown is also interested in the trying to save the souls of those he encounters, whether perpetrators, accessories or victims.

As portrayed in the BBC TV series, he lives in a post-WWII rural England that's remarkably (for Britain) friendly to Catholics -- and the BBC adaptation is equally friendly to Father Brown's faith.


Brother Cadfael

The world would say that faith and reason are mortal enemies. In truth, they are BFFs, especially in the world of a Catholic crimesolver like Cadfael.

This 1990s British series is available in its entirety on Amazon Prime. If you’re interested in faith-infused viewing suitable for teens and up, it might be just the binge you’ve been looking for.

The series is based on The Cadfael Chronicles, a string of historical murder mysteries written between 1977 and 1994 by linguist-scholar Edith Pargeter, writing under the pen name of Ellis Peters.

Although an Anglican, she had a deep knowledge of the medieval heritage of the Catholic Church, before the plundering and destruction by Henry VIII and his successors.

Between 1994 and 1998, British network ITV aired the TV adaptation, starring Derek Jacobi as the 12th-century Crusader-turned-Benedictine-monk, who lives at an abbey in Shrewsbury, England (the abbey was destroyed, but the church remains, containing a memorial window for Pargeter).

Brother Cadfael uses his knowledge of the world and human nature, his keen, almost Holmes-ian powers of observation, along with an extensive familiarity with herbal medicine (learned in the Holy Land), to solve crimes.

The series aired on PBS as part of its former Mystery! anthology series. Cadfael is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime and YouTube).

(Reprinted with permission from Kate O'Hare's Pax Culturati blog.)


CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

And perhaps top of the list of investigators that rely on technology and modern science, along with their powers of deduction and observation, are the law-enforcement scientists of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-off series.

But, along with their experiments, beakers and microscopes, the CSI series also look at the human -- and even spiritual --dimensions of crime.

In an episode of the original series, called Altar Boys, chief investigator Gil Grissom (William Petersen) -- who says he believes in God but not organized religion -- meets a priest in the course of an investigation.

Here's a snippet:

Gil Grissom : We both have jobs that begin after the crime.

Father Powell : After the sin.

Gil Grissom : Some people would call that a career in futility.

Father Powell : Some call it a vocation.

The CSI series continue on CBS and Paramount+.

Sherlock Holmes

No discussion of detectives who rely on powers of observation is complete without Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a literary creation so complete that it's hard to remember he never lived and breathed.

And, he's become as much a presence on film as on the page.

The latest BBC version, Sherlock (seen in the U.S. on Netflix and other streamers), has Holmes taking advantage of cellphones and other pieces of technology which were not even in the imagination of medical doctor Conan Doyle when he penned his novels.

In the original incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, his greatest assets were his scientific acumen, impressive powers of observation and logic, and encyclopedic knowledge of arcane subjects (such as cigar ash).

While not portrayed as a man of faith (Doyle was a lapsed Catholic who turned to spiritualism), Holmes was not perhaps entirely hostile to the notion.

From Scientific American:

Holmes, whose gargantuan intelligence focuses obsessively on solving crimes (he is interested in science only insofar as it furthers this goal), has never evinced "any keen interest in natural objects," Watson notes. Watson is even more startled when Holmes, after picking up the rose, delivers the following monologue:

"There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.

"All other things -- our powers, our desires, our food -- are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from flowers."

While the contemporary Sherlock is not always family-friendly, one can never go wrong with Granada Television's 1984-1994 version, starring Jeremy Brett, which aired on PBS.

And, it's all on YouTube. Here's a sample:


Image: Lorna Watson in Sister Boniface/BritBox

Francine Brokaw is a longtime journalist, covering entertainment, product reviews and travel, and is the host of Beyond the Red Carpet on Village Television and YouTube.

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