Crime Fiction Alphabet: R is for Religious Cults

When I was a university student I was perpetually broke and so was willing to do almost anything for a few bucks or a hot meal. This included acting as a guinea pig for studies being carried out by the campus’ psychology and medical faculties and taking part in the introductory seminars held by the various cult-like groups that always proliferate where young and possibly vulnerable people are. I have many (many) faults but being suggestible and wanting to be part of the in-crowd are neither of them, so I was never in much danger of being sucked into their clutches. I did however develop a fascination with religious cults and how they tick that has stayed with me to this day. Most of the books I have read on this theme are either non-fiction or not in the crime genre but I have found a couple over the years. As always I’d be pleased to hear any recommendations you have for good books on this theme.

Jupiter’s Bones (1998) is Faye Kellerman‘s 11th Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus book and features an investigation into the death in southern California of Dr Emil Ganz, otherwise known as Father Jupiter, leader of a doomsday cult with a belief system based on a curious mixture of maths and mysticism. Although I grew a bit tired of this series some years ago I always liked the way it tackled religious themes in general, neither preaching nor condemning, and this one is no exception. There is. of course, a standard police procedural (with the policeman’s wife pitching in where appropriate) but also a not unsympathetic look at the cult and what brought its members together.

Laurie R King‘s standalone novel A Darker Place (1999) is a terrific story in which Anne Waverly, who is a former cult member, university professor and covert FBI agent, goes undercover in a dangerous cult in an effort to save its members. Having survived her own cult experience but losing a husband and daughter in the process Anne is a tortured soul with self-destructive tendencies and a complicated personality. One of the best things about the book is that it depicts the cult leaders not as rabid psychopaths or outright charlatans but as highly functional ‘normal’ people who believe their version of the truth. this is a far more realistic (if scarier) prospect that the madmen (and women) of TV cults who most people would run a country mile from.

Kerry Greenwood‘s Heavenly Pleasures (2008) is the second of her Corinna Chapman series set in present-day Melbourne. As the book opens one of Corinna’s neighbouring shop-owners is experiencing poisoning of their produce (delicious hand made chocolates) and at the same time Corinna’s recently acquired boyfriend Daniel has started to investigate a mysterious cult that is preying on the young and vulnerable people who frequent the soup kitchen that Daniel helps out at. A much lighter look at religious cults than the other two books mentioned here.

So, do you know any crime fiction featuring a religious cult that I should check out? All recommendations gratefully accepted (with the exception of Meg Gardiner’s China Lake which I have read and did not enjoy nearly as much as Stephen King did).

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Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting the crime fiction alphabet meme which requires the posting of an article relating to the letter of the week. Do join in the fun by reading the posts and/or contributing one of your own. You don’t have to write every week.

This entry was posted in Crime Fiction Alphabet, Faye Kellerman, Kerry Greenwood (Aus), Laurie R King. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Crime Fiction Alphabet: R is for Religious Cults

  1. Sarah Hilary says:

    Pig Island by Mo Hayder. Not as good as her later books, however. Two of which – Skin, and Ritual – feature occcult practices which come close to what you’re describing.

    Blood Test by Jonathan Kellerman. Not his best book, but the cult is creepy.


  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – Oh, what an interesting topic for “R.” Your discussion of your university days reminds me of my own; there were certainly those cults around my campus as well, and although I never fell prey, I found them interesting, too. There’s a Robert B. Parker novel – in the Jesse Stone/Sunny Randall – called Split Image, in which a set of parents ask Randall to rescue their daughter from a cult. And then there’s Lesley Glaister’s Chosen, in which a young woman goes after her brother, who’s joined a cult. I’m sure there are lots of others, too.


  3. Norman says:

    Bernadette-The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser is all about Van Veeteren’s investigation into the disappearance of a young girl from a religious cult’s summer camp in the forests of Nesser’s Northern European country.


  4. Another excellent post, congrats. I would certainly recommend Margaret Millar’s classic HOW LIKE AN ANGEL for an unusually sympathetic depiction of a cult and Anthony Boucher’s NINE TIMES NINE for an amusing if perhaps more predictably scathing depiction.


  5. Maxine says:

    I hate books about religious cults as a rule (eg Pig Island as mentioned above is the weakest of Mo Hyder’s books in my view, in fact I thought it was unreadably awful, and I usually like her). I like Van Veeteren but I thought the cult theme in Inspector and Silence weak.
    But some are good – notably Asa Larsson’s superb debut Sun Storm (aka The Savage Altar) which I think you would love if you haven’t read it, Bernadette, not least Rebecka’s attitude to religious cults ;-). The second, The Blood Spilt, is about religion but not a cult as such. (Religion is big money in Sweden, as explained in these books as Rebecka is a tax accountant or lawyer of some kind, for a firm who represents some religious organisations, which is what drives the plots of books 1 and 2).

    Mari Jungstedt #3 was about a religious cult but I thought quite a weak book in a good series. (Forget title as at that stage they were all one-word titles beginning with U and they merge into one).

    The Redeemed by M J Hall is on the border between religious fanaticism and cult.

    At least one of Mankell’s Wallander books was about a cult, or at least some kind of Sami/Native American kind of religious lunacy.

    Probably there are a lot more as religous nutters are quite a staple theme of crime fiction, I usually steer clear unless it is an author I can trust or have been recommended by someone I trust.


  6. Dorte H says:

    Apart from all the excellent examples in your post and the comments above, I´d recommend Jussi Adler-Olsen´s third Carl Mørck book. It is not out in English yet, but I think it is almost better than Mercy which gets fantastic reviews in the English-speaking world right now.

    But I agree with Maxine that there are several examples of stories about religious cults which are not very successful. Quite often Scandinavian authors treat everybody who believes in anything as if they are ´religious nutters´. Well, that may be how non-religious people see us, but really, if writers treat us all as if we are potential dictators & gurus, it is more or less like claiming all criminals are potential serial killers ;D


  7. Kathy D. says:

    Signs in the Blood by Vicki Lane is the first in her mystery series set in Appalachia. Religious cults, snake handlers, armed militias abound in this light and fun book. The main character, a middle-aged woman, is quite likeable.


  8. Kathy D. says:

    Just to add on: I read Laurie King’s book and liked it, as I have with all books by her which I have read. She is a good writer.
    I concur on Meg Gardiner’s book. I raced through it as I found no substance, and do not get her appeal to Stephen King or anyone else. Almost anything is more interesting.
    I will try to find Kerry Greenwood’s book for a friend who bakes, and then I’ll borrow it back. I hope there are no recipes for chocolates; all I need is one more reason to eat desserts!


  9. Rob says:

    Not exactly crime fiction, but I think the best book on cults is Cult Fiction by Ardie Collins. It is a wacky and fun book about how a cult starts up. The funniest book I’ve read in ages. It’s currently available only as an ebook but, according to Amazon, the paperback is out in September. Take a look here: Cult Fiction


  10. Anne H says:

    Two novels by Ngaio Marsh feaure religious cults, the early Death in Ecstasy and the much later Spinsters in Jeopardy set in the south of France where Alleyn is on vacation with Troy and their son.


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  12. Cliff Bott says:

    I recently read ‘The Case of the Man who Died Laugiing’ by Tarquin Hall. A (fictitious) Indian religious cult figures prominently in the story. Hall is an Englishman married to an Indian journalist and seems to spend part of each year living in India. The novel is set in Delhi and is the second in a series featuring an Indian detective, Vish Puri. I hesitate to recommend novels because peoples’ tastes vary so much but I liked this one a lot – there is a lot of gentle humour and the characters are likeable. It also gives a good (I presume accurate) insight into modern middle class life in urban India. I haven’t read the first novel in the series.

    Religious cults are a big deal in India as indicated by the attendance at the recent funeral of one of the ‘god men’, Sai Baba, by the Prime Minister and Opposition leader of India. The novel goes into the connection between cults and politics.


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  15. Sarah says:

    Having just written today’s post I’ve just noticed this that you posted this earlier in the year. There’s a link to your Kate Charles review on my post already but I’ll add this one too.


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