Saturday, September 30, 2017
QUIET AS A NUN by Antonia Fraser
Quiet as a Nun is Antonia Fraser's first mystery; she was already noted for historical biographies so this was something of a departure for her. Her character (and narrator, for this book only) is Jemima Shore, an investigative TV reporter who stumbles into murder and mystery and uses her investigative talents to bring a solution.
In this, Jemima is dealing with a fizzling love affair (with a married MP) and receives word of an old friend's death. Rosabelle Powerstock had been a wealthy heiress, but she had become Sister Miriam at the Convent of the Blessed Eleanor, and had been behaving erratically before she locked herself in a ruined tower and starved to death. Jemima had attended the convent school for a time, and Mother Ancilla, the Reverend Mother, contacts her to come investigate; something is very wrong with Sister Miriam's death, and one of the girls at the school may know something...
For a contemporary setting (published in 1977), it's actually quite Gothic in its atmosphere, with an ancient convent, a ruined tower that may or may not have shielded a scandal in the past, secret passages, disputed wills, and a ghostly nun haunting the convent whose presence presages death. It made for fun reading as a teen, and I enjoyed it again. It's also very visual and dramatic, which made it a natural for a TV adaptation. Britain's ITV adapted it for their "Armchair Thriller" in 1978 and it aired on PBS' "Mystery!" in its 1982-83 season, which was when I saw it.
In fact, the series is still notorious for having what is judged to be one of the most frightening TV moments in British TV history, when Jemima sneaks into the ruined tower and meets the ghostly Black Nun...
It's a tiny bit dated, but still a good fun read, and Fraser handles the Gothic chills well.
There was an entire Jemima Shore series of novels, which I think I'll reread. ITV also aired a 12-episode series, "Jemima Shore Investigates," in 1983 and somewhere I picked up an anthology of stories from the show, so that will be included as well.
Check it out if you happen on it at the library or the used book store; it's good fun.