The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Bishops, monks, chaplains, vicars and deacons - men of the cloth are found through all genres of fictional writing, including science fiction. They were key figures in several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and can still be found in modern bestsellers like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.  They feature so often in literature not because of their good work in God’s name but usually because of their flaws. They are tempted by the flesh, their faith is questioned and tested, and they have doubts about themselves and their vocation. Some priests are simply evil. Of course, they are also heroic, comedic and sometimes pompous, and there is a raft who are sleuths – detectives in habits or dog-collars.

Very few of literature’s priests are perfect. Graham Greene, an author who loved to use men of the cloth in this writing, famously coined the term, Whisky Priest, in The Power and the Glory to describe clergymen whose own morals do not match the sermons they are preaching.  The phrase can be neatly applied to dozens of novels where the priest is less than godly in his actions.

From Damien Karras’ chilling exorcism to the struggles of the Vicar of Wakefield and William of Baskerville’s powers of deduction, take a pew and listen to sermons from 25 of literature’s most fascinating (and often flawed) clergymen.

If you are a member of the clergy, please tell us your thoughts about how priests are portrayed in literature. Email your experiences to media@abebooks.com

25 Literary Priests

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist
William Peter Blatty

Father Damien Karras, who is suffering a crisis of faith, goes head-to-head with a demon.

Office of Innocence by Thomas Keneally

Office of Innocence
Thomas Keneally

Father Frank Darragh is a naïve World War II-era Catholic priest in Sydney who becomes entangled in murderous events.

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds
Colleen McCullough

Handsome Father Ralph de Bricassart is torn between God and his feelings for Meggie.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller Jr.

Brother Francis Gerard is just one of the key monks in this epic sci-fi tale of church vs state.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory
Graham Greene

Greene coined the term ‘whisky priest’ for flawed clergyman in this novel of church vs state.

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop
Erle Stanley Gardner

A vintage Perry Mason mystery published in 1936 – is Anglican bishop William Mallory legit?

The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson

The Cardinal
Henry Morton Robinson

Father Stephen Fermoyle climbs the hierarchy of the Catholic Church between the wars.

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

Diary of a Country Priest
Georges Bernanos

A fragile priest arrives in the village of Ambricourt and endures nothing but problems.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War
Robert Cormier

Father Leon is an assistant principal in an American high school and evil to the core.

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

The Vicar of Wakefield
Oliver Goldsmith

The ebbing and flowing fortunes of Rev Charles Primrose has stirred literary debate since 1766.

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage
Anthony Trollope

Mark Robarts, the young vicar in Barsetshire, has trouble when asked to guarantee a loan.

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

The Monk
Matthew Lewis

Ambrosio is very ungodly. His downfall includes lust, rape and murder in this Gothic novel.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop
Willa Cather

A Catholic bishop, Jean Marie Latour, and a priest, Joseph Vaillant, struggle in New Mexico.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow
Mary Doria Russell

A sci-fi yarn where the Jesuits send a mission into space and just one man returns - Father Emilio Sandoz.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen

Clergyman William Collins asks Elizabeth to marry him but she spurns him despite his wealth.

The Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

The Innocence of Father Brown
G.K. Chesterton

A compilation of 12 stories printed in 1911, this priest/sleuth was the author’s best known character

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters aka Edith Pargeter

A Morbid Taste for Bones
Ellis Peters aka Edith Pargeter

First Brother Cadfael novel – a monkish medieval mystery set in Shrewsbury. There are 19 more Cadfael novels.

A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood

A Meeting by the River
Christopher Isherwood

A story of relationships, social taboos and two brothers, one of whom has entered a monastery.

The Monastery: A Romance by Sir Walter Scott

The Monastery: A Romance
Sir Walter Scott

A medieval love story set in Scotland with two brothers, one of whom becomes a monk, who fall for the same girl.

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke by Roald Dahl

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
Roald Dahl

Reverend Lee suffers from a Back-to-Front Dyslexia and says the most vital word (often the verb) in a sentence backwards.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven

I Heard the Owl Call My Name
Margaret Craven

Young Anglican vicar Mark Brian, who is dying, learns about the meaning of life after being sent to British Columbia.

Be Near Me by Andrew O'Hagan

Be Near Me
Andrew O'Hagan

It all goes horribly wrong for Catholic priest David Anderton in this Booker-listed novel from 2006.

Her Death of Cold by Ralph McInerny

Her Death of Cold
Ralph McInerny

The first Father Dowling novel in a series of 25+ mysteries. Dowling is a Catholic priest in Chicago.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
Louise Erdrich

Father Damien Modeste works on an Indian reservation for more than 50 years but he is not what he seems.

Grandmother and the Priests by Taylor Caldwell

Grandmother and the Priests
Taylor Caldwell

A group of Victorian priests share tales about how their faith has been tested. A forgotten classic.

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