So far in my occasional series on clergy in fiction, I have not engaged with detective fiction, and in particular the clergyman as sleuth. Most readers will, I imagine, think immediately of Chesterton’s Father Brown, but the clerical detective is in fact a numerous class of men. Rather smaller is the group of ordained sleuths who are themselves creations of clergy. Here, I deal with one (or rather, a pair) of them, the archdeacons of Thorp and Garminster, creations of Cyril Alington, dean of Durham.
The improbably titled Archdeacons Afloat, published in 1946, was in fact Alington’s 37th book, and his ninth work of fiction. Alington was prolific, in fact, in several genres: history, popular theology, poetry and memoir, little of which has had a permanent impact. However, this was no mere clerical hobbyist: the publishers of his fiction included Macmillan (his first novel in 1922) and (in this case) Faber and Faber, of which T.S. Eliot was a director. That said, it is hard to dissent from the verdict of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that Alington’s fiction was ‘clever, witty, but quickly perishable’. William Temple, writing to Dorothy L. Sayers in 1943, noted that Alington ‘has several such [detective] stories to his credit – or discredit; frankly, I am not quite sure which because though they amused me, knowing him as I do, I don’t think they are very good!’
As literature, Alington’s fiction may well deserve the obscurity in which it now languishes: merely a part of the necessary but anonymous mulch of nondescript writing out of which better work grows. But the archdeacons are interesting for the light they shed on the ways in which the clergy feature as fictional characters. Archdeacons Afloat is particularly interesting in that it is set not in Blankshire, the English county in which three later novels involving the pair are set, but on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. As such, we see the archdeacons transferred out of the social setting that gives clerical characters their significance in other works in this series (see for instance John Wyndham or John Fowles), and focusses our attention on their personal qualities as the mystery unfolds.
Though we are told that Craggs, archdeacon of Thorp, was ‘a name of terror to negligent clergy’, these men are not like the cantankerous Archdeacon Hoccleve (Barbara Pym), or Trollope’s worldly Archdeacon Grantly. Certainly, there is no sense here of the social tension of post-war England, under a Labour government and undergoing sweeping social reform. Our heroes are quite at ease with faded aristocrats, the wealthy wives of northern industrialists, and eminent lecturers. The only threats to this floating microcosm of stable and respectable English life are Greek brigands and the ruffian Blades, who ‘doesn’t look as if lectures were much in his line.’ (chapter 1) Alington is by this time an old man, and the novel is deeply nostalgic for a former time.
There are of course nods here to the ecclesiastical: in-jokes that must have been recondite even at a time when general knowledge about the Church of England and its doings was deeper and more widespread. The archdeacons relish their temporary escape from the dilapidations of parsonage houses or the recalcitrance of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners – the day-to-day lot of the archdeacon, along with vicars at war with their churchwardens, choirs that could not sing, and armies of plumbers, registrars and indeed bishops. Indeed, the whole plot turns on the old joke of John of Salisbury, ‘Num archidiaconus salvari possit’ (can an archdeacon be saved?), a neat trick that must have had Alington’s clerical readers chortling. However, the role the two play is more commonplace: the priest as confidant and go-between, and ultimately as a restorer of order. ‘Gentlemen’, remarks one character in the ship’s smoking room, ‘I give you the toast of the Archidiaconate of the Church of England’.