The Madonna Murders
by Pamela Cranston


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I was very sad when I finished The Madonna Murders by Pamela Cranston. I wanted the story to go on and on. For me it is very reminiscent of Armistad Maupin's Tales of the City, in that the San Francisco Bay Area provides the scenic backdrop. The story involves a ritualistic murder and theft of the miraculous Icon of Our Lady of Kazan from a Russian Orthodox cathedral in San Francisco.

The author is an Episcopal priest and a Russian history scholar. She very artfully incorporates poignant passages from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's spiritual writings at the beginning of each chapter. She gives the reader a marvelous introduction into the spiritual meaning of Eastern Orthodox iconography. She knows and weaves the history of the Russian Orthodox Church both in the Bay Area and abroad throughout this tale of murder, mystery, and redemption.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who would like to read a delightful "whodunit" whilst feeling inspired at the same time.

Tikhon Borisevitch "Tikhon"
San Francisco, CA USA

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East Bay Express
Best Of 2007
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Best Clergyperson/Mystery Novelist: Holiest writer
Pamela Cranston

In Cranston's debut novel The Madonna Murders, a theology professor at a Berkeley Episcopal seminary tackles crises of both body and soul and becomes a spiritual sleuth when gruesome murders happen on hallowed ground under the watchful eyes of the Icon of Kazan. In real life, this image of the Madonna and Child has been venerated in Russia since the 16th century, disappeared in 1918, reappeared in a European auction, spent ten years in a San Francisco church, and was returned to Moscow in 2004. Cranston, who is also a published poet, followed that creative-writing-class credo to "write what you know" — if not about vicious killings, then at least about the cloth. The Oakland author is an Episcopal priest, ordained in 1990 after attending Berkeley's Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a stint in England as a nun. Losing a brother to hepatitis in 1995 — she gave him the last rites — further confirmed Cranston's commitment to hospice work and chaplaincy. Largely set in the Berkeley Hills, this novel joins the ever-rising stack of East Bay puzzlers, a genre unto itself.

“The Adirondacks has Julia Spencer-Fleming, Boston has Michelle Blake and now the San Francisco Bay Area has Pamela Cranston. We welcome Pamela to the world of theology and murder! Her character, Andrea West, a theology professor in Berkeley, is a welcome addition to the new wave of strong and independent female 'theological sleuths'.

If you're looking for a mystery with a delightful local setting, The Madonna Murders will be your cup of tea. It certainly is mine. Come along with Andrea and visit Fort Mason, the Berkeley Hills, and along the way, learn about the rich cultural history of the Russian community in San Francisco as Andrea tracks down a mystical Icon and attempts to solve the vicious murder of an old friend.

The Madonna Murders is a damn good mystery (forgive the blasphemy). It's not often these days that I can find a good mystery that I can't put down. The Madonna Murders is a book that will keep you turning the pages and wanting more of Andrea West.

I am so sure of this book that I have already reserved a place for it on our recommended rack and I can't wait until it comes out. I am looking for more exciting mysteries from Pamela Cranston.”

Diane Kudisch, Owner
San Francisco Mystery Book Store

The Madonna Murders is a classically good mystery. It starts with characters you care about—Andrea West is a literary daughter of both Amanda Cross's academic world and Elizabeth Peters' adventurous women, Keith, the love interest is really loveable, and the villains and Russian holy men are fantastic—then it adds some really weird and exciting events beginning with murder in the Cathedral, an immersion into the spiritual culture of Russian America and a tense and exciting conclusion. Cranston has done her homework. You can enter her world with confidence. From beginning to hair-raising end, you won't be able to put this one down.”

The Rev. Carol Luther
Episcopal Priest
September 29, 2003

The Madonna Murders by Pamela Cranston is a thriller that admirably fulfills its function of providing suspense and intrigue while doing much else as well. An interesting and varied cast of characters leads the reader on an impeccably plotted progress from the first corpse through the fast moving chase to its final satisfactorily inconclusive conclusion. The author plays fair and there are clues to the murderer's identity scattered throughout, but probably only a practiced few murder buffs will spot them unless rereading the book.

In the meantime, we have watched the growth of a serious relationship between the two major characters: an incipient Professor of Theology and a member of "The Media"; an unlikely couple who start off very much on the wrong foot. Their amusing verbal sparring continues throughout, but their changing and growing feelings have led to the strong possibility of a permanent commitment by the end of the last chapter.

Mixed into all this are many pleasures, such as: the solid particularity of the San Francisco/Bay Area setting; the history of the Russian enclave there in the early part of the last century; fascinating information about icons, and the Orthodox church; thought-provoking discussions of moral and theological matters; a touch of mysticism, a feeling for the holy. The book does no preaching, but certainly it does some teaching for those who are interested in one or more of its themes. It is a 'good read' thriller, stuffed with ideas and constantly garnished with wit.”

Dr. Roussel Sargent, Ph.D.
Retired English professor
Mills College, Oakland, CA

“I loved The Madonna Murders by Pamela Cranston. It certainly ought to sell especially well in the San Francisco Bay area because of her affectionate and detailed descriptions of local scenes—Green's Restaurant, also Maxwell's and Kimball's, Alamo Square, Dolores Park Lake Street, etc. not to mention the car chase on the JFK Drive and of course the Russian cathedral itself. In fact, all of her scenes are especially well done, giving the reader the feeling of being right there. I admired her characterizations, especially that of Keith—and of course Andrea will surely turn out to be an unforgettable character for all of us. The twists and turns of the plot keep us in suspense right up to the end, with informative flashbacks to flesh out background information. But most of all, I loved the descriptive passages, not too wordy, not overdone, but obviously written by a poet. I think my favorite is when Andrea gets up early up at the Mendocino monastery and is walking down to the little chapel. She makes us see and smell and hear and feel the peace of that moment. Very moving.”

Janet McMaster Oman
Walnut Creek, CA

The Madonna Murders is a wonderful mystery, but also educational with a touch of romance! I loved that it was located here in the San Francisco bay area. I highly recommend it.”

Tori Campbell
KTVU Reporter/Anchor

The Madonna Murders is an engrossing and thrilling mystery. Cranston has delivered a masterpiece of 'who done it intrigue.' This book is more than a simple mystery novel, the love interest, the sense of locale and history, the vivid personalities and spiritual depth all come together to weave a tapestry that extends well beyond the confines of the pages of the book. This is a work that echoes in the mind of the reader long after they have turned the last page. Hopefully this is the first of many more good works to come!.”

Gordon Edward
El Paso, TX USA

“Pamela Cranston's The Madonna Murders is a rich and engrossing mystery for everyone. I normally don't like mysteries, but I LOVED this book. The characters are well-drawn and unique. I particularly liked Andrea West and the progress of her deepening involvement with not only the mystery but the insights her detective work gives her into her personal life. I especially appreciated the excellent research and explanations about iconography and the history of the Russian church. I recommend this book to everyone who loves a good story, mystery or otherwise.”

Kathleen Crisp
Antioch, CA

Andrea West just wants to complete her finals and settle down as the theology professor at the Episcopal Seminary, but the fabled Icon of Kazan is about to enter her life and turn it upside down. This icon would be valuable for itself because of the gold and jewels adorning it, but as well there are many legends about its miraculous powers to heal and perform other miracles. When Andrea’s old flame is murdered and the icon stolen, she is forced to discover the perpetrators and bring them to justice. This is going to be a tortuous trail; she will meet a modern saint, nearly get killed more than once, find a man, and come up against some real evil. And all this in only a fortnight… There are lots of thrillers about magical artifacts involving a chase to get hold of them, but this one has the added dimension of being inspirational. As the coveted item is an icon, this has the benefit of not merely being an exciting story, but also in making the reader think about icons, religious faith and the existence of evil. Set at the time of the momentous changes in Russia, this tale also concerns Russia’s rich heritage and turbulent history. This is a complex story, more so than perhaps appears on the surface, with its many layers and themes and needs careful reading to get the most out of it.

MyShelf.com Book Review Website
Reviewer: Rachel A Hyde
Copyright 2004 MyShelf.com

"What an honor and a joy for us to read The Madonna Murders. This is such an incredible premise and the history is so fascinating we found ourselves wondering how much of it is true! Well done! We will personally pass the word on to EVERYONE!"

Brock and Bodie Thoene
Authors of The Zion Chronicles, First Light, and The A.D. Chronicles


The Madonna Murders by Pamela Cranston is a terrific book! The character development is almost without flaw, the interaction of the various aspects of the plot is simply splendid and it is a gripping story with ample twists and surprises that makes it very hard to put down! The writing is, by and large, very fine. I commend her research: it is quite awesome and as afar as I can tell factual and complete. And finally, it is such a relief to read about ecclesiastical matters dealt with accurately!”

Fr. John-Julian, OJN, Superior-Emeritus
The Order of Julian of Norwich
Author of A Lesson of Love.

Delicious, deadly, old-fashioned mysteries
Oakland Tribune, Thursday, October 30, 2003

Murder Russian-style is Oakland author Pamela Cranston's specialty in The Madonna Murders (St. Huberts Press, $14.95). Professor Andrea West agrees to examine the bejeweled Icon of Kazan for forgery and becomes immersed in murderous intrigue while she searches for those trying to steal the ancient icon, prized not only for its treasure, but its mystical powers.

CURL up with a delicious mystery and a cup of Darjeeling tea and lose yourself in a world where crimes can be solved in fewer than 300 pages. Murder, dahling?

Kathleen Grant Geib
Staff Writer

"In the last two decades of the twentieth century, a striking number of clerical murder mysteries were published, and of these a significant number take up Anglican themes. The popularity of the genre may in some way be the result of the fine work of P. D. James, although her work does not, properly speaking, fit the category (except perhaps, in a sense, her The Black Tower and Death in Holy Orders), and in any case her novels far outstrip those of the general class in the same way that Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is distanced from the many pulp-marketed medieval whodunits. James is, of course, as she has often humbly expressed her hope, a "serious novelist," and cannot thus be simplistically linked with the mass appeal of most Anglican detective fiction, but we need not as a result denigrate examples of the latter, such as Pamela Cranston's first novel, The Madonna Murders. Cranston writes in good company, including that of D. M. Greenwood and Kate Charles, to take only two recent British women writers as examples. Unlike Greenwood, however, who skirts the women's ordination issue by fashioning her sleuth as a committed deaconess, Cranston sets her Andrea West as a theology professor at an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, California struggling (in the first chapter) with a theologically conservative and politically well-situated female student. And unlike Charles, whose early work took up the anguish of the gay man's call to pastoral ministry by treating homosexuality as bisexuality and thus allowing change in sexual orientation to her character, Cranston sets aside the question of pastoral calling in this respect and redirects the pain to the "rejected" woman-her sleuth no less-who suffers because of her lovers initial confusion as to his orientation.

As a first novel the piece has its shortcomings: the fundamentalist and the seminary administrator to whom we are introduced in the first chapter are stereotypes, as is the heroine's opening lecture with requisite visual aids and rambles on Jung, academic freedom, and attacks on the "religious glaucoma" of the right (although this is a California lecture, we must recall, and the whole section may be intended as ironic). The often too blatant asides, such as the treatment of perspective immediately prior to the much more nuanced Russian choirs "Gospodin," are problematic, as are the too-fabricated central character relationship and too-multivalent conspiracies.

But all this may be overlooked; Cranston's sleuth has enough breadth of character to be developed in further novels, and the reader is assured by this first piece that its lapses will be repaired in later compositions. Moreover, Cranston knows that the writing of clerical detective fiction is not the same as manufacturing a "zip novel" or a "best-seller" thriller-that the genre requires an introduction to major faith questions, and to achieve this end, she turns to an Orthodox theme: the murders occur under the gaze of the Holy Mother and her Son depicted on a miraculous "Icon of Kazan." Whether the icon is authentic and what one is to understand by religious authenticity are questions left to open the reader into greater mystery than the puzzle of who killed whom. And there are other questions as well, religious questions asked without the stained-glass voice so resonant in much poor religious fiction: Who is a father? How are goodbye and forgiveness the same? What of the death of the good? What is the relationship between icon and idol? And what is the significance of each of the epigrams from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's Meditations: A Spiritual Journey for the respective chapters that they mark in Cranston's work?"

Dr. Peter C. Erb
Professor of Religion and Culture, Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
The Anglican Theological Review, © 2004

“Here’s a mystery with an Episcopal edge to it. When Andrea West, a theology professor in an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley CA, agrees to examine a rare and valuable Russian icon for signs of forgery, she plunges headlong into a tangled plot of blackmail, murder, and pure Evil. Besides all that, it is an engrossing page-turner of a story.”

Nancy and John Marshall
Managers, Episcopal Bookstore
Seattle, WA

“I admire the richly detailed scene setting, the vibrant relation of memorable characters, and the crisply paced storytelling of The Madonna Murders. Pamela Cranston is a writer. I am one of her admirers and I appreciate the very good read she has provided.”

Clark Simms
Author of Beyond Eden

This is a fast-paced book that works on many levels, so I think it will be appealing to many different types of readers. My husband enjoyed it because it is a thrilling mystery. My teenage daughter liked the strong sense of place. She really felt like she was there, with the characters, in the Bay Area at a posh restaurant. She said that it was like reading a great travel memoir. I liked how well-researched this book is on so many topics. Whether it is Russian history, or art, or Christianity, the author dives into her subjects with great insight and detail. I hope this is the beginning of a series! I want to read about the trials and tribulations of these characters again and again.

An Excellent Read, March 15, 2004
Reviewer: J.D. Evans
Chico, CA USA

“Episcopalian chaplain, Pamela Cranston, makes her contribution to the familiar genre of Anglican mystery writing in The Madonna Murders (Saint Huberts Press, 2003, 327 pp.). Set against the backdrop of an unnamed Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, California, this novel's plot moves deftly from events during the Russian Revolution to the early twentieth-century Russian enclave in California, and further on to modern-day San Francisco in the course of an investigation surrounding a murder connected with the famous icon of Our Lady of Kazan.

One of the most delightful features of the book is the way in which Cranston weaves the spiritual writings of the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom into the narrative through pithy quotations at the head of every chapter. These quotations alone were one of the reasons why this book found me looking forward to the commute to and from work for several days running while I was reading it. Cranston has hit on the unusual coincidence of a good mystery combined with solid historical facts, well-drawn characters and a serious understanding of Christian theology and iconography.”

Editor, The Anglican,Vol. 34, No. 2, April 2005, p. 25.

[The Madonna Murders] makes a fast-paced and quite an interesting story that is told with some humor. Its strength lies not in the machinations of its improbable plot, but in Andrea's own relationships such as those with her new boyfriend (the ever-persistent reporter Keith Carlton) and her priestly confessors, and its introduction to the world of icons, which, it is explained, "are supposed to be windows to heaven. The fifth dimension, if you will." The scenes they depict can "look weird, not because heaven is warped, but because we are. It is a visual attempt to show how skewed our perspective is compared to the reality of Grace". The story is given added depth, too, by the quotes from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's Meditations: a Spiritual Journey that appear at the start of every chapter.

Phillip Grosset
Clerical Detectives and some other crime fiction: The Madonna Murders, March, 2009

We welcome your reviews and comments about The Madonna Murders. Please write: REVIEW in the subject line of the e-mail and send it to us at: sthubertspress@pacbell.net. We will make every effort to add it.

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