Literary Notes: A nun in a dodgy bar at three in the morning

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The Independent Culture
WHILE MUSING on the idea of what would make a good detective for a series of crime novels, I stumbled upon the idea of a nun. Which shows how little I, and many others, know about nuns.

What I did know was that the archetypal hero of crime fiction should be in some sense set apart, a loner, capable of fetching up in dodgy bars at three in the morning, drinking whisky with no one back at home to worry about them. He or she should be beyond society, thereby free to go down the mean streets.

A nun according to common prejudice is someone who lives by solitude, who has set herself apart from family and society, and who, if she lives in an open order, could quite feasibly be accountable to no one. After all, these days, a nun is as likely to be dressed in jeans and live in a terraced house in Hackney, as to be covered in black from head to toe and inhabit a medieval cloister in a place of outstanding natural beauty. Modern nuns can be found in hostels for alcoholics, in centres for the homeless; freed, indeed, by their vows, to go down those mean streets.

But many fail to realise is that a convent is a social structure like any other. Far from escaping from any kind of accountability, those living the monastic life are still in a workplace facing the same workplace issues as anyone else. Nuns progress from their novitiate to management posts, rising up in their organisation like any other managerial person, and then finding themselves responsible for the running of things, the planning of building works, the worrying about funding and expenditure.

Rather than floating through the silent cloister on a cloud of unknowing, the modern nun is constantly called upon to deal with the everyday running of her community, or with the challenges of her work. Not only that, but there are the irritations of one's fellow workers to contend with - just like ordinary life, in fact, except without weekends off.

So much for the archetypal solitary nun. It would hardly be appropriate to be out chasing clues, when you're supposed to be doing the washing- up, or in a management meeting with the archdeacon to discuss the new roof. A convent, rather than being a collection of people seeking solitude, is more like a beehive, a collective body of interdependence and consensus.

There is, however, another side to the archetype: the sense of struggle. In any crime novel, of course, there is the conflict between good and evil; but also, there is the series of challenges faced by the hero in uncovering the truth. In classic crime novels from the so-called "golden age", the detective simply finds him or herself up against the evidence, and has to fight with that. But, these days, we ask more of our crime fiction; the modern detective has his or her own struggle, his or her own personal battles to be fought - this could take the form of conflict within their personal life, a messy divorce perhaps or some past unresolved relationship which won't quite disappear. And, of course, joining a convent doesn't put an end to any of that. Entering a monastic community doesn't wipe out one's past. It doesn't cancel those all too human yearnings, desires or memories - but it might just offer a structure in which such issues can be contained or laid to rest.

Someone who takes up the monastic life may have relinquished the "outside world" in terms of family, mortgages or car insurance; but instead they face the challenges raised by their vows. Far from having run away, they have chosen to accept things as they are, to inhabit a place from where there is nowhere left to run. A convent is a place to live out one's real life, like anywhere else.

A nun, then. A fictional nun, someone who finds herself out chasing clues when she's supposed to be doing the washing-up. And she's still capable of fetching up in dodgy bars at three in the morning drinking far too much whisky. It could work.

Alison Joseph is the author of `The Dying Light' (Headline, pounds 17.99)