Welcome to my 2015 NaNowriMo novel! This is actually a book I started writing during NaNoWriMo 2013, but was unable to finish at the time. I've since gone back to the drawing board and rewritten my outline with new characters, plot twists... and even additional murders.
This is the first formal mystery I've ever attempted to write, so wish me luck. It's not quite as easy as all of my favorite mystery authors make it look!
Please feel free to comment on anything you like – or dislike – as I post new chapters this November.
Here's my synopsis, to get you started:
When Mark O'Malley, Notre Dame's favorite father, is found murdered in the rectory, Carmelite wannabe Sister Mary Gloria turns to famed stripper-turned-sleuth Venus Delmar for help.
Following a wild trail across Paris, Venus discovers that the root of all evil isn't a love of money – it's the Catholic church!
With the help of a randy rabbi, a few wayward nuns, and maybe even a little divine intervention, she's determined to solve the Case of the Cunning Linguist before the mysterious Latin lover kills again.
I hope you enjoy The Case of the Cunning Linguist.
Buttontapper Press: Books that press buttons
It was a slow day at the office when the dame with the funny habit walked in. It wasn’t just that she was a nun, done up in the black and white penguin suit, but the headpiece – the wimple – was askew in a manner that suggested she’d been either furiously scratching at her scalp or had hastily thrown it back on just moments before entering my office. Either way, I thought it was odd. Downright peculiar, really. What kind of a nun goes around messing with her clothes? Isn’t that why they’ve got the uniform in the first place? No fuss, no muss, just full-on prayer and heavenly thoughts all day long. Wash and go once a week, just like the gals on the airplanes.
No, something didn’t add up. Not from the get-go, and certainly not once she started talking.
“Homo sum humani a me nihil alienum puto,” was what she said. Not “Hello,” or “How do you do?” or “Oh, Ms. Delmar, I really need your help!” What kind of a fine how-do-you-do is that?
“Beg your pardon?” I asked, accepting her small outstretched hand and answering her limp offering with a firm shake. “My Greek’s a little rusty.”
“It’s not Greek, it’s Latin,” she smiled. “It means ‘I am a human being; nothing human is strange to me.’ I was just remarking to myself about your… unique choice of office space.”
“Ah, yes, La Tour Eiffel. Horrifying, isn’t it? That’s why I took the space. It’s the only place in Paris where you can’t see the damn thing.”
I grinned and sat back in my chair, steepling my fingers while observing the nun. She glanced around my room as if taking inventory of the dusty stacks of papers, tiny window papered over with brown grocery bags, and the shabby, mismatched furniture that cluttered the tiny space. As far as detective agencies go, mine wasn’t much to look at, but at least there was evidence of my work in progress, and it was pretty clear I worked alone, judging from the single desk. A woman could feel safe and secure talking to one of her own, or at least that was the idea behind the setup. Bring in the big boys after this little girl sorted out the mess for ‘em.
The bird finally deigned to perch upon the wooden chair in front of the desk. She looked both befuddled and haunted, as if she wasn’t sure how to proceed in a place like this - dirty, secular, beyond the confines of her comfortable cloister.
“So, sister, what brings you to Delmar Investigations? Lost your sacristy wine? Misplaced your Bible?” I lit up a cigarette and blew a smoke ring her way. She winced, just like I knew she would.
“Please, Ms. Delmar, this is a very serious matter. I can’t imagine joking at a time like this.”
“A time like what, sister?”
“The name’s Sister Mary Gloria, but since I’m not yet officially a member of the sisterhood, you may require my given name of Edna Folderol. I’m a novitiate with the Carmelite order at Notre Dame.”
“Edna, eh? Well, Edna, what’s the big mystery? Lost lamb like you could get eaten up my us wolves pretty quick. Out with it already.”
“It’s Father O’Malley. He’s… why, he’s dead!”
At this, the nun burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably into my desktop.
“Father O’Malley, you say? And how did you come upon this information, Edna?”
“I was the one that found him,” she finally managed, still sniffling and snuffling. “He had asked me to meet him for matins – that’s morning prayers – at four, and when I reached the church it was still dark and empty. I went ‘round to his chambers, and when I knocked there was no answer. I thought he must have slept through his alarm, so I opened the door to wake him, and there he was, face down on the floor with a knife in his back!”
Before she could commence with the wailing once more, I interjected, “You entered the man’s chambers? Did you touch anything?”
“Oh no! I saw all the blood and the knife and I screamed. Mother Superior found me there, screaming hysterically, and took me away to the infirmary. I think she must have given me a sedative, because I blacked out, and when I came to she told me I’d been out for about an hour. I told her I would be in my chambers, praying for Father O’Malley’s soul, but instead I came straight here. Oh, Ms. Delmar, isn’t it awful?”
“Straight here, you say? How did you know about Delmar Investigations? I thought all of you ladies kept to yourselves at the nunnery, nothing but prayer and good deeds all day long?” I jotted a quick note on the pad on my desk. This story was getting fishier by the minute, and I don’t mean halibut.
“Why, yes, but all of us know you’re the best female detective in town. We love to read write-ups about you in the paper.” She blushed and looked down at the floor. Was this woman pulling my leg or just buttering me up?
“Sure, but I’m also the only female detective in town. No wonder it still makes headlines,” I huffed. The boys hated that I was always swiping work out from under them, especially when it paid in dividends, as most of my casework did. Heiresses murdered, double indemnities faked, housewives’ fancy jewels stolen… I’d seen it all. Not to mention the more sordid affairs, complete with gigolos, gangsters and burlesque stars. But what on earth did a murdered priest have to do with any of this domestic violence, my stock in trade?
“I know it’s not your typical case, Ms. Delmar,” Edna broke in, as if reading my mind, “But I know Father O’Malley was murdered, and I’m worried about my safety. Will you help me find the killer?” Her pleading eyes and trembling lower lip were silent communiqués I knew well. But were they the look of a truthful novitiate or the fraudulent facsimile of a cold-blooded killer?
“You nuns take a vow of poverty, don’t you? Exactly how do you intend to pay my fee?”
At this Sister Mary Gloria leaned in for a confidential whisper. “Oh, Ms. Delmar, I’m sure Mother Superior will be happy to pay you for your services. She commands quite a full ledger, as she’s the order’s Parisian attaché to Rome. Unlimited spending, courtesy of the Pope.” She sat back again with a confident smile.
“I see. And what if, god forbid, your Mother Superior is somehow involved in this sordid slaying?”
Sister Mary Gloria’s face went white, and she began to shake her head violently. “Oh no! Mother Superior could never… I mean… it’s just impossible! Oh, Ms. Delmar, how could you imply such an awful thing?”
“Stranger things have happened, Ms. Folderol. I am merely speculating aloud. Also, I’m leery of taking on a case in which the client may be unable to pay, due to the possible entanglements of friends, family or church caretakers. Would you mind if I spoke with your Mother Superior about the matter before making up my mind?”
The little nun seemed quite taken aback at this suggestion, and opened her mouth to speak, but quickly closed it again. She rocked back and forth in the chair, as if trying to decide whether or not to reveal any further secrets about her order’s order – or lack thereof. I smoked the remainder of my cigarette and calmly stubbed it into the glass ashtray to my left before she appeared to make up her frantic mind.
“Well, you see…” she began.
“Mother Superior… the whole Carmelite order, really… we… well, quite simply, we do things a bit differently than the rest of the Holy Roman Empire.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, and I shouldn’t like for us to get into any trouble, much less Mother Superior, as she might lose her position due to such a scandal.”
“And you might step in to take her place?” I asked, trying to fit the pieces together.
“Oh no, nothing like that,” she refuted. “It’s just… the Pope allows us certain leeway when it comes to our activities, but I fear his leniency may be compromised if he hears of any… outside probing, if you see what I mean.”I gave her a hard look. Her wide-eyed innocence seemed plastered onto her face. It was hard to imagine a bride of Christ - or this bride-to-be - telling anything but the truth. And yet stranger things have happened, including this damn odd nun walking into my office and asking me to solve a clergyman’s murder.
“I’m not sure I follow you, Ms. Folderol, but I’ll take the case on one condition.”
“I must have complete access to both the priory and the church itself, along with full cooperation of the sisterhood concerning my investigation.”
“I’m not sure I can promise the latter, Ms. Delmar, but I’ll do my best. When can you begin?”
“Consider my timecard punched,” I replied. “Go tell your sisters that I’ll be in to speak with them each in turn this afternoon, and take note of any that have a strong or strange reaction, will you?”
“Oh, yes, Ms. Delmar. Anything to help you solve this dreadful murder!” She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, just like a lost widow. Was there more to her relationship with the dead priest than she let on? Another note scribbled onto my pad as she got to her feet and crossed to the exit.
“I’ll see you this afternoon,” I said, as she opened the door.
“Thank you, Ms. Delmar. I look forward to seeing you in action.” She gave me a wave and blushed again before closing the door behind her.
I sat back in my chair once more, steepling my fingers in thought, and wondering how on earth I was going to drag the mystery of this murderer’s identity from a bunch of women who’d sworn a vow of silence.
Lucky for me, it turns out the Carmelites don’t take a vow of silence – just poverty, chastity and obedience for these penguins. Unluckily for me, the last person to see Father Mark O’Malley alive was a nun. Coincidentally, the first person to find him dead was also a nun. However, one nun was now on the run, while the other was off having nun fun – by which I mean praying for Father O’Malley’s eternal soul – or so Mother Superior claimed.
Sister Mary Gloria was nowhere to be found when I arrived at Cathedral Notre Dame, ready to interrogate several dozen potential murderesses. A fine howdy-do. My point-woman had flown the coop. It seemed like a bad sign, or at least an indication that the little sister-to-be wasn’t all she claimed.
“Sister Mary Gloria has only been with us a short while,” the Mother Superior informed me, as we sat across from one another in her cramped office. “She came to us from the university, where she had studied world religions, saying she had chosen Christianity as the one true path. She believed joining the Carmelite order would help her expand on her relationship with the Virgin Mary, as we are a Marion-based group. I asked about her family background, and she was very reluctant to give me any information about them.”
“Oh? Did you ever find out why?”
Mother Superior smiled, radiating a beatific presence. “Well, I am a bit of an amateur sleuth myself, Ms. Delmar,” she said. “I consider myself the Google Gumshoe, if you will. I did a few searches online for Edna Folderol and discovered that her father was Frederick Folderol, best known as—”
“The inventor of the electric toothbrush, yes, I thought her name seemed familiar. And did Mr. and Mrs. Folderol have any notion that their daughter sought to join your order?”
“They were rather perplexed when I rang them up, but both insisted that Edna was now a grown woman and could make her own decisions on the matter. It did strike them as odd that she would choose to join a Catholic ministry, as she had previously expressed a great deal of interest in Buddhism.”
“The plot thickens,” I quipped.
“Indeed! Mr. Folderol said Edna had no student loans, thanks to his fortunes, and would not contribute any debts to our order, which reassured me on that front, but he said he had no real understanding of either Catholicism or our order’s mission, much less any reasons his daughter might have for wanting to join us. It remains a bit of a mystery, even amongst the sisters here at Notre Dame, though of course we each have our theories.”
“And what is yours, Mother Superior?” I inquired, knowing full well this was exactly the audience she’d been hoping to entertain with her Google Gumshoe gleanings.
“Well,” she began in a hushed tone, “I suspect that Sister Mary Gloria is actually with child.”
Even I was taken aback by that one. Sure, a habit could disguise a lot, but a pregnancy? I wasn’t convinced.
“Oh? And who might the father be?”
“That, my dear, is quite the scandal,” Mother Superior said, eyes darting left to right. “I certainly do not wish to speak ill of the dead, but I have my suspicions that Father O’Malley was teaching Edna about more Latin terms than the motto of our order!”
“Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum. With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts.”
“I see. Perhaps The Lord God in this equation takes a slightly more… human shape?”
Mother Superior narrowed her eyes and nodded once, slowly.
“Have you any proof of the late Father’s misconduct?”
“That I do not, though I had been trying to catch him in the act for several weeks.”
“I don’t suppose you had ever thought to install video cameras to catch him on film?”
“I had, but attempting to rig anything surreptitiously within the convent is quite an impossible feat. There are a dozen women coming and going into the common rooms at all hours of the day and night, and if they had been having congress in either of their chambers, I certainly would have known. The girls police one another’s conduct most strictly, and all of us are forbidden from entering the rectory, where Father O’Malley lived.”
“Sister Mary Gloria told me she found Father O’Malley in his chamber. If nuns are expressly forbidden to enter the rectory, how is it that she was caught in the act of doing so?”
“I heard her screaming and came running. Normally I would never enter a priest’s chambers, but I assumed someone had been hurt and was in need of my assistance. When I realized what had happened, I rushed the poor girl out of the room, then called for the housekeeper to ring for an ambulance. It did make me wonder, afterwards, why she was in the rectory at all, but I can hardly view her as a murderer. Indeed, if they were intimately involved, as I believe they may have been, why would she want to kill Father O’Malley?”
“It certainly doesn’t add up,” I agreed. “But then again, not much of this makes any sense to me. A woman who has previously expressed great interest in Buddhism converts suddenly to Catholicism, desperate to take on the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. A priest is accused of corrupting young women. A peaceful and cloistered order is experiencing murder, and its newest member tells me that the scandal must be contained before it reaches Rome. I tell you, I can’t understand it at all, Mother Superior.”
Here the prioress suddenly leaned forward in a fury. “And contained it will be, Ms. Delmar! The Pope cannot hear even a single whisper of this, or it’s curtains for us all. Do you hear me?”
“Don’t worry, Mother Superior. You have my word as a private investigator that I’ll keep this thing quiet. After all, Sister Mary Gloria tells me you’re quite the favorite with the Romans, and I wouldn’t want anything to jeopardize my… earthly reward.” I gave her a wink.
“Solve this case quietly and you will be rewarded with riches beyond your wildest imagination,” she said, laying another beatific smile upon me. “On earth as it is in heaven.”