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Nun Develops a New Habit: Murder Novels

January 25, 1987|KAY BARTLETT | Associated Press

It was an odd spot for a 53-year-old nun, but there she was, sitting next to Mickey Spillane, Ivan Hunter and Robert Parker. And Dick Cavett was interviewing the four.

The mystery is solved if you know that Sister Carol Anne O'Marie is a nun who writes murder mysteries.

It all started seven years ago when this former teacher, mother superior, principal and fund-raiser based in San Francisco found that she had a little time on her hands. Fund-raising, she discovered, isn't all that time-consuming.

"People say no very quickly. Yes takes a little longer, but for the first time I had unstructured time on my hands."

Lest idleness become the devil's workshop, she signed up for an adult education class in creative writing and got the age-old advice: Write about what you know.

Choice Was Obvious

A voracious reader of murder mysteries with 35 years logged in convents, Sister Carol Anne's choice was obvious. She set out to write a murder mystery with the main character, Sister Mary Helen, as her Miss Marple. Although the murders are fiction, the octogenarian sleuth is based on the personality of a real-life Sister Helen.

"I asked Sister Helen if I could base a character on her. She said 'Go ahead. I'll be dead before you finish the book.' "

Not so. In fact, the real Sister Helen came along to book signings of the first, "A Novena for Murder," and when she didn't seem too perky one day, Sister Carol Anne asked her if she was well.

"Yes," she retorted. "I'm saving myself for the sequel."

Now the sequel is here. It's called "Advent of Dying" and, like the first, is set in San Francisco. Sister Carol Anne uses a composite of a convent where she had lived and a parochial school atop a hill in San Francisco.

Again, Sister Mary Helen is signing books, along with the author.

"She loves it, but she pretends to hate it. She doesn't recognize herself, but all the people who know her do."

The daughter of an Irish father and Italian mother, Sister Carol Anne had serendipity, if not her guardian angel, sitting on her shoulder as she progressed.

Her first critics were the other students in the class.

"An old gentleman told me that when I got to the sex parts, I should have the lights go out," she said, laughing. "And I did. I don't know how Andrew Greeley does it. Oh, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that," she stammered. (Greeley is a priest-novelist.)

Then she needed an agent.

"I looked in the back of a book and just picked six names. I chose them by the way they sounded."

Three of the six offered to represent her. She chose one who sold the first book to Scribners.

"I got a letter from Charles Scribner III. He said he wanted to see it. I didn't know there was a real Charles Scribner. I was so naive I asked the agent if I should send it to her or Charles Scribner.

"She said that when Charles wanted to see a book, you sent it right to him."

The first book sold a respectable, but not earthshaking, 7,000 hard copies, plus paperbacks. A different publisher, Delacorte Press, brought out the second.

She said she's gotten about 300 letters, some from former students.

Only two of the letters were nasty. One, from a Baptist, thought that it was terrible that Sister Mary Helen says "damn" once in the book. The author is also taken to task for having Sister Mary Helen hide a mystery novel inside her prayer book. The other curmudgeon thought that it was terrible for a nun to be writing about violence in a world that already has too much of it.

She says her order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, which is headquartered in St. Louis, is very supportive.

"It's like 'local girl makes good,' " the author said.

They even bought her a word processor.

"The first time I was interviewed, I was asked if I used a typewriter or a word processor. I said I used a Ticonderoga. But there was a generation gap between me and the interviewer. I had to explain that a Ticonderoga was a pencil."

Royalties Go to Order

A senior citizen typed the first two manuscripts from her very legible and nun-like Palmer penmanship.

All royalties go directly to the order, which is why she will continue working as a fund-raiser.

"I raise a lot more money than my books will ever make," she said. She did get a nibble from the megabucks world of movies.

"They said it looked good on the hoof," she said, raising her hands in search of a translation.

She uses her uncle, a 33-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, for a research tool and interviews the cops on technical matters.

"They all love it, but they never agree with each other," she said.

She also walks along back alleys that she intends to use in her books. She visited a nightclub to set the scene in her second book and plans to use New York for one setting in her third book, "The Missing Madonna." Some of the characters will attend a convention in the Big Apple.

Entered Convent at 18

"It gave me an excuse to have a fancy lunch," she said.

Sister Carol Anne entered the convent when she was 18, after only three months of deliberation.

"A recruiter came to our school and suggested that if we thought we could be happy either married or in the convent, why not try the convent first? If we didn't like it, it would be easier to leave than the marriage."

She tried it and liked it.

"It's funny how God speaks in certain ways," she reflected.

Does she see her mystery novels as a way of spreading the word of Christ?

"In a philosophical way," she said. "I didn't set out to preach, but the good guys win and the bad guys lose. I think the books say God loves us and it breaks down a lot of stereotypes of what nuns do in convents."

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