Sunday, 26 February 2017

Warning: traces of God

I’m currently writing a series of murder mysteries set in the 1920s. They are about a young, female journalist called Poppy Denby who solves mysteries against the backdrop of the wild, care-free jazz age. She is the daughter of Methodist ministers but, since her move to London, has discovered that not everyone lives by the same moral code. Her aunt is – possibly – gay, her best friend a flapper with a string of suitors, and her boss a hard-drinking gambler. Poppy herself tries to live a moral life, but her real challenge is to live out her faith in the ‘real’ world. Poppy does not seek to change those around her – although she will challenge them when she feels they are being selfish, unkind or unjust – but rather to live out her faith through seeking truth and justice for the victims she encounters in her job.

In the first book, The Jazz Files, we see Poppy wrestling with God because of the death of her brother in WWI. She struggles to reconcile a God of love with all the suffering in the world. It’s a struggle most of us face. In the second book, The Kill Fee, she is so busy with her new job – often having to work on Sundays to meet a deadline – that she does not get around to joining a new church in her new city. Unlike the first book where we see Poppy thinking about faith – or the lack of it – a fair bit, in book 2 she doesn’t have time to think about it until two thirds of the way through where she stops, in one scene, and realises that she simply has no idea how to solve the mystery; or save the person who is in danger. She is at the end of her tether and suddenly remembers God. She turns to Him in an awkward prayer and asks for help, naively reminding Him who she is because it’s been so long since they’ve spoken. For me, this awkward ‘tag-on’ prayer, is authentic. There’ve been times in my life when I’ve been so carried away with life – particularly when it’s going well – that I’ve almost ‘forgotten’ God and have had to brush the cobwebs off my faith.

However, it seems that my view of what it’s like to be a Christian in the ordinary world – which is very much true to my personal experience -  is difficult to grasp for some readers.  I have become used to the critical reviews from very conservative Christians who are offended that I show what they consider sinful behaviour without then 'saving' those characters from their sin. In one case a reviewer announced that she never reads books with gay people in them. Period. And is shocked that they exist in a ‘so-called Christian book’. Note, I never call my books ‘Christian’ and go out of my way to avoid the Christian Fiction label. I want to write books for all readers to enjoy, whether they are people of faith or not. Yet, because they are published by a Christian publisher, Lion Hudson, and distributed by another Christian publisher, Kregel, in the USA, the label, unfortunately, is difficult to shed.

Most Christian readers, however, have felt that Poppy’s faith is naturally woven into the books and my non-Christian readers have not seemed to object to it at all. Some of them, in fact, have said it seems ‘refreshingly real’. So it came as a surprise to me last week when a reviewer castigated The Kill Fee for its Christian content. This reviewer said there had been nothing on the cover or in the marketing that told her it was going to be a ‘Christian book’ (hurrah!) and the style of writing and the characters presented ‘without judgement’ had suggested to her it wasn’t. She said up until the ‘prayer bombshell that came out of nowhere’ any mention of God could be excused as just being ‘normal’ for the period. But then, according to her, I ambushed her with evangelism (a hurried prayer asking God for help). She was shocked and offended and said ‘it looks like Smith is trying to bring Christianity into the mainstream’. She said I had no right to do that and should just ‘stick to writing Christian Fiction’. Well, that’s me told!

Well you know what, I make no apology for my traces of God. I would write the same type of books whether it was for a Christian or a non-Christian publisher (in fact my latest book, Pilate’s Daughter, which has quite a few ‘traces of God’ is published by secular publisher, Endeavour Press). But it just reminded me of how and why ‘Christian Fiction’ developed in the first place, driven from the mainstream where Christian characters or stories of faith were not permitted to exist. I am not ‘trying to evangelise’ as this reviewer suggested, I just want to write books that present faith as a natural part of some people’s lives. This review has reminded me, however, that any public confession of faith is sometimes an offense to people. But that’s their problem, not mine.

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction) was nominated for a CWA Historical Dagger in 2016. The second book, The Kill Fee is out now, and the third is due later this year. Her novel Pilate’s Daughter  a historical love story set in Roman Palestine, is published by Endeavour Press.Her children’s books The Young David Series and the Young Joseph Series  are published by SPCK.


  1. Thanks for this real insight into how you can't win either way... or, how it isn't actually about that at all, it's about being true to your vision, including your faith. Intolerance is clearly not confined to any creed. I hope we all find true critics who can help us grow, not people demanding we fit their views.

  2. 'We played wedding music for you, but you wouldn't dance! We sang funeral songs, but you wouldn't cry!' Jesus knew how it would be, didn't he?

  3. Well said Fiona. You are exactly on target.