I picked up this little mystery novel because having lived my entire life with nuns….growing up running around the Dominican convent in Rockville Centre, hiding behind the starched white habits, and cuddled on the many Dominican laps, spoiled with Russells Stovers chocolates and holy cards (both of which, mysteriously, the nuns in my aunt’s convent always seemed to have at hand)….I have to say, I love nuns.
But more importantly for this writer, I love to read. And I love mystery stories, and A Nun in the Closet has all the right ingredients. What a fun, rollicking good read. If you’re looking for a breezy summer beach or poolside read, this book is it.
A Nun in the Closet follows two cloistered sisters from the convent of St. Tabitha’s in Pennsylvania. There are only 17 sisters in the entire United States branch of the order, living in cloistered, holy solitude. They live off the land; Sister Hyacinthe, one of the nuns in the story, is the cloister’s herbalist, whipping up such delicacies as slippery elm bark gruel for breakfast and tasty peppermint tea as a pick me up. The nuns also bake bread and sell it via a local bakery and deli.
Fortune smiles upon the good sisters when they receive a mysterious letter from a a New York-based attorney giving them the amazing news that a man in upstate New York, a Mr. Moretti, has died and left his entire 100+ acre estate to the order. The Mother Superior charges feisty Sister John and Sister Hyacinthe with the task of driving to the property and taking inventory so that the sisters can decide what to do with it.
Borrowing their friend’s bakery van (since the nuns do not own a car) and loading it with freshly baked bread, homemade cheese and bedrolls, the nuns arrive at a sprawling, empty Gothic Victorian mansion to find an overgrown garden, a dusty house with no running water, but a mysterious kitchen pantry filled with over 50 jars of sugar. The nuns quickly encounter another mystery; a man hiding in their upstairs closet. He whispers, “Sanctuary!” before passing out from blood loss; he’s been shot several times. Fortunately, all of the bullets passed out through the exit holes, so Sister Hyacinthe’s poultices and the nuns’ strong dandelion wine can do their magic and restore the man.
The sisters soon encounter a group of friendly ex-hippies encamped on their property who introduce them to the plight of migrant workers locally. Other strange characters appear, including a man who has a fascination with everyone’s trash.
If this all sounds crazy, believe me, it is. Sister John and Sister Hyacinthe are great detectives for several reasons. First, nothing phases them. When ghosts appear one night, Sister John just starts quoting scripture at them to banish them while quietly continued her sewing. Later on in the book, when a bad guy threatens her with a gun, her perfect faith saves her. And while we the readers know that the mysterious suitcase with half a million dollars in it found suspended in the haunted house’s well has to be connected with the pantry packed with jars of sugar – actually cocaine, as the ex-hippies have to explain to the nuns – the sisters remain blissfully ignorant.
Finding out who keeps breaking into their new home, figuring out what to do with all that cocaine left lying around, the effort to convert the man hiding in their closet to Christ (he happens to be a Mafia hit man, but that doesn’t deter these feisty nuns from trying to get him to leave his evil ways), and helping the local migrant workers out of poverty, all the while solving the mystery of why Mr. Moretti, a man the sisters have never heard of before, left his entire fortune to their order is all seamlessly interwoven into a fun plot that never veers into sacrilege or irreverence. On the contrary, although the sisters are fun and funny, their faith is what saves them at the end of the day.
I won’t give away the ending to the mystery, but let’s just say the good guys come out ahead, and when two branches of the Mafia show up, they’re no match for two nuns brandishing rosaries, quoting psalms, and calmly demanding they wipe their feet on the front door mat.
A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman is my first experience with Ms. Gilman’s writing. I look forward to finding more of her books; I hope she wrote more stories about Sister John and the nuns of St. Tabitha. They’d make fantastic detectives and would give Brother Cafael a run for his money!