I’ve just seen an announcement that Hodder’s going to run a 12-part serial about a gun-toting nun. Bookseller states: ‘Hodder & Stoughton has bought a "groundbreaking digital serial Western", Nunslinger by Stark Holborn. Anne Perry bought world rights in a deal with Ed Wilson of Johnson & Alcock. Set in 1864, the story sees nun Sister Thomas Josephine on her way to California, and finding she has to pick up a gun, in a plot featuring "varmints, lowlifes, cowboys, drifters, desperadoes, high-plains adventure and page-turning excitement". [Who'd have thought Hodder was so pro-westerns?]
The story will be published as a 12-part serial digital original, with parts 1, 2 and 3 published on 26th December 2013 and nine more parts following in March, June and September 2014. Nunslinger is to be promoted with a "spectacular" digital campaign across online communities starting on Boxing Day 2013. Author Stark Holborn is said to be "shrouded in mystery", with Nunslinger "his or her" first published work.’ [I don't think it's J.K. Rowling this time...]
Nuns in fiction are not new, of course – not even in westerns. A far cry from the nunslinger is Thomas Eidson’s brilliant St Agnes’ Stand (1994), an excellent character-driven story. There are a good number in crime fiction: Sister Mary Helen Sister written by real-life nun Sister Carol Anne O’Marie (books 1994-2006), the Sister Mary Teresa series by Ralph McInerny (creator of Father Dowling) writing as Monica Quill (1981-1997), Sister Fidelma, a 7th century nun in Ireland, written by Peter Tremayne (1994-2012), and Sister Agnes by Alison Joseph (1994-2011).
There’s also a slew of comicbooks, notably in the US, about warrior nuns. Some of these are juvenile with buxom barely clad nuns, while some are sci-fi incarnations such as Avengelyne – the emphasis on ‘avenge’, I suspect.
In the early 1990s I wrote a short story about a nun who used to be a cop. I entered it for a competition but it didn’t win. It featured Sister Hannah who ran a hostel for the homeless in Charleston, South Carolina (I’d been to Charleston). Inevitably, the story grew, and involved her traumatic past as a cop in New York.
In 1995 I went to London to compete in the ‘novel in a day’ competition, which took place at the Groucho Club. I borrowed a laptop from work and spent two days there, two 12-hour stints, and produced roughly 18,000 words, Silenced in Darkness. Prior to going, I’d plotted the storyline and used the nun character, visualising the scenes in my head so that when it came time to write it down, I could simply transcribe as if from a movie. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that, but the preparation helped. These were the judges’ comments: ‘Sister Hannah is a deeply felt character’ – Terry Pratchett. ‘I kept turning the pages, wanting to find out what happened next! Sister Hannah is an original!’ – Kathy Lette. ‘I too enjoyed Silenced in Darkness’ – Melvyn Bragg. I was joint fourth, so no cigar!
I had a few close calls with literary agents. One wanted me to provide more violence for the modern reader; another said the same, but seemed squeamish when I delivered. Once, I spent an hour or so in a publisher’s office and they seemed keen on using Sister Hannah as a lead crime character, but then declined to take it further. A major literary agent spent a few months with me but eventually decided to back off. After which, I moved to Spain and finally found time to write almost continuously. I rewrote the original book, changed it from Charleston and New York to Newcastle upon Tyne and London, altered its title and made it first person narrative instead of third person. The first chapters won a prize in the Harry Bowling competition for first-time novelists. The judges wondered if I was in the police, and before meeting me wondered about the author’s gender, and even considered I might have been a nun! No, I explained, it was all down to research. I thought I’d arrived. Alas, no, again the book was declined. I took time off to write my first western, which was accepted within a week. This goaded me to return to the nun, now renamed Sister Rose.
Finally, in 2007, Pain Wears No Mask was accepted and published by a new publisher on the block. It gained a good selection of reviews. Two psychic spy thrillers followed from the same publisher, both very popular. Then, sadly, the publisher shut its doors and I was left with three books effectively out of print. And that’s where they are now.
An excerpt: Policewoman Maggie Weaver is in a hospital run by nuns, recovering from serious trauma; she’s bitter, heartbroken. Unlike the rest of the book, this section is third person, for good reasons.
On the following day another nun entered her room. ‘I’m Sister Veronica,’ she said. She was Irish, tall, with a long austere face, a thin hooked nose and almond-shaped eyes. ‘Sister Gonzalez is indisposed.’ She kissed her rosary, murmured, ‘Hail Mary, Mother of God.’‘So? Look, Sister, I don’t need religion and all this forgiveness nonsense.’
‘You will soon be free to do whatever you wish – presumably within the law.’
‘Sister Eulalia Gonzalez took the name of Saint Eulalia of Merida, the most celebrated virgin martyr of Spain?’
‘I don’t really care. A bit thin-skinned, is she?’
‘No. On the contrary. May I sit here with you?’
‘So long as you cut the sanctimonious bits.’
Sister Veronica smiled thinly, clasped her hands together as she sat on the bedside chair. ‘No, I won’t inflict anything religious on you, to be sure.’
Despite herself, Maggie liked this nun. Well, she’d liked the Gonzalez one as well, even if she was a bit docile. ‘About Sister Eulalia Gonzalez?’
‘Oh, she comes from Guatemala.’
‘A mission down there. You may have read that some ultra-right forces have long considered the Catholic Church to be supporting leftist terrorists?’
‘No. Get to the point, Sister, will you. I’m not in the mood for a history lesson.’
‘Sister Gonzalez was kidnapped and taken in a police car to a warehouse on the outskirts of Guatemala City. They blindfolded her and threw her into a room where she was left to pray. She’d accepted her death.’
Maggie felt a cold chill begin to creep up her spine.
‘Two of Sister Gonzalez’s captors removed her clothes, poured wine over her, and raped her repeatedly. Then they said that if she gave an answer they liked they would let her smoke. If they didn’t like the answer, they would burn her. She said that was unjust, so they burned her anyway. She screamed with the pain but there was no-one willing to do anything about it.’
Tears, salty to taste, flowed freely down Maggie’s cheeks, but she was incapable of lifting a hand to brush them away.
‘Her torturers said she knew guerrillas and demanded she identify her contacts. Eventually she passed out. She regained consciousness in a courtyard. Here there was a pit filled with dead and dying, some jerking with the last vestiges of precious life. She remembered someone crying very loudly. Perhaps it was her own voice.’
‘Oh, Christ,’ Maggie whispered, and finally put her hands to her streaming eyes.
‘One of the police shot her and she tumbled on top of the bodies. But that night she awoke and found the bullet had gone straight through without any serious damage. Somehow, she struggled free and crawled away to hide till she could get help.’ Sister Veronica stood up. ‘She wants to go back, to testify against the perpetrators... but we’re afraid for her, you see?’
I know it’s only a matter of time before Sister Rose will be published again. She has more stories to tell. You can’t keep a good nun down.