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.
10 thoughts on “The Pilgrimage Has Gained Momentum*”
Brava, Margot! I couldn’t think of one book that uses this element.
Thanks, Sue! There’s not much else rattling around in my brain, so there’s room for this kind of thing…
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Isn’t there a whole series based on the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? I think I have a couple of them on my shelves but cannot now recall the author.
Do you mean the series by P.C. Doherty, Neeru? I have to admit I’ve not read that series (although I have heard of it). I’d love to know what you think of the books if you’ve had a chance to read them.
Thank you for setting my mind to reflecting on pilgrimages. I thought of Kathleen Norris who writes poetry and about faith. While a Presbyterian she is a Benedictine Oblate. Over a few years she effectively spent a calendar year living with Benedictine monks in North Dakota and Minnesota. She wrote a wonderful book called The Cloister Walk. As a practising Catholic who went to high school and first year university at a Benedictine monastery and remain connected with St. Peter’s the book deeply resonated with me.
That book sounds fascinating, Bill. I’m sure that she learned a lot, and changed by her experiences. And with your own background, I can see why the book resonated with you as it did. The contemplative life certainly has things to recommend it.
Didn’t one of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books have a pilgrimage of some kind in it? My memory as always is shocking! The Woman in Blue – I seem to remember the town of Walsingham was full of nuns and priests gathering as part of an Easter pilgrimage…
You’re absolutely right, FictionFan! Your memory’s a lot better than you may think! That’s exactly what happens in The Woman in Blue. And it all starts because of a vision Cathbad has…
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Not familiar with any of your examples. From childhood experience I can remember being packed off on a church trip to Rome in 1975. It was classed as a Holy Year in the Catholic church. I remember seeing the inside of a lot of churches on that trip including a trip to see the pope. Probably more churches than any 10 year old ever needed to see.
Oh, that must have been quite a trip, Col, for a kid that age. I think for a lot of people those trips to Rome and to see the pope mean a great deal. I’ll admit I’ve never done a pilgrimage myself, but I know a lot of people take a great spiritual interest in pilgrimages.