People travel for a number of reasons. One of them, that you might not think of immediately, is to make a pilgrimage. There are all sorts of pilgrimages, both religious and more secular, but whichever sort of pilgrimage people might undertake, it’s a very important journey for them. And pilgrimages can add interesting layers of plot to stories. The journey itself involves disparate people, and you never know what might happen on the way. And even if a pilgrimage isn’t a major aspect of the plot, it can add character depth, backstory, and other richness to a story.
Many fictional pilgrimages are, of course religious. For instance, in Peter Tremayne’s Absolution by Murder, we are introduced to Sister Fidelma, a Catholic nun living in 7th Century Ireland. As well as being a nun, she is an attorney, and is among a select group of people summoned by the King of Northumbria to advise him and to rule on religious matters. It’s an important event that will have real consequences. Everything’s thrown into chaos, though, when the Abbess Étain is found murdered. If the council is to do its work and prevent serious religious turmoil, Sister Fidelma will have to find out who the murderer is. Throughout the novel, there are references to religious pilgrimages that some of the characters have taken, including a trip to Rome. Sister Fidelma herself has been on a pilgrimage to Armagh. Pilgrimages are long, dangerous, and difficult, so anyone who’s been through that experience is treated with special respect.
That’s also the case in Zoë Ferraris’ Finding Nouf. In the novel, Othman ash-Shrawi hires his friend, Nayir ash-Sharqui, to find out what happened to his sister Nouf. She went missing and was later found dead in a wadi. Othman wants to know what happened to her. Nayir isn’t a private investigator or police officer, but he is a skilled desert guide with strong tracking skills. As he begins to look into the case, Nayir meets laboratory technician Katya Hijazi, who is also Othman’s fiancée. Together, she and Nayir start looking into the case. In one of the sub-plots of the story, Katya is trying to find a place to fit in within Othman’s family, and it’s not easy. She has little in common with her fiancé’s relatives. One of them is a cousin, Huda, who makes pilgrimage to Mecca every year. She’s made much of, and is called, ‘…the greatest pilgrim on earth and the right hand of Allah.’ Her elevated status shows how important the trip to Mecca is among observant Muslims.
Donna Fletcher Crow’s An Unholy Communion is the third in her Monastery Murders series featuring Felicity Howard, who as the series begins is studying at a rather remote English convent. It’s a contemporary series, but there are many links to ancient traditions, history, and more. In the novel, Felicity is leading a pilgrimage to Wales with her fiancé Father Antony. The trip is marred from the beginning, though, with the apparent suicide of one of the pilgrims, Hwyl Pendry. In his hand, he’s clutching an ancient symbol. Felicity soon begins to wonder whether this death was murder or suicide, especially as the pilgrimage continues, and more eerie things happen. Then there’s another death. It seems clear that someone wants to sabotage the trip, and it could be connected with some truly dark ancient history.
In Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones, we are introduced to PI Ray Lovell. He is approached by Leon Wood, who offers him a new case. Wood’s daughter, Rose, went missing several years ago after a short-lived marriage to a man named Ivo Janko, and Wood wants Lovell to find her. Wood’s real reason for wanting Lovell is that Lovell is half Roma, and all of the families involved are Roma. Wood feels that people Rose knew will be more likely to talk to someone who is ‘one of us.’ Lovell takes the case and begins to ask questions. In the novel, we also meet a fourteen-year-old boy Roma named James ‘JJ’ Smith. He and his family are on their way from to Lourdes, hoping for a miracle cure for JJ’s six-year-old cousin Christopher ‘Christo.’ We learn that Christo was born with an incurable illness that has prevented him from developing normally. As the story goes on, we follow the family as they make this pilgrimage and experience Lourdes, and then return to the UK. We also learn how JJ’s story will merge with Lovell’s story, and that of Rose, the woman he’s hoping to find. While the trip to Lourdes is not the main focus of the novel, it’s an interesting look at pilgrimages, and it does play its part in the plot.
Of course, not every pilgrimage is religious. For instance, millions of people travel from all over the world to visit war and other memorials. And millions of people visit places like Elvis Presley’s home at Graceland, in Memphis. For them, that journey is extremely important. And we see that in crime fiction, too. For example, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Memphis BBQ series takes place in Memphis, and features Lulu Taylor, who owns a popular barbecue restaurant. Some of her close friends are docents at Graceland, and we learn about their work. And one of the novels features a wedding that’s held there.
Pilgrimages may not be for everyone, but they are important to many people. For some people, they are religious; for others, they are personal journeys. For still others, they are opportunities to see world-famous places. In crime fiction, they can serve as interesting plot points or contexts, and they can add to character development.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s Pilgrimage.