The Nun Who Read Mysteries (by William Boyle)

A native of Brooklyn, New York, William Boyle currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. His novels have been nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, the John Creasey New Blood Dagger, and the Hammett Prize. A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself was an Amazon Best Book of 2019 and City of Margins was a Washington Post Best Thriller of 2020. Just out this week is his novel Shoot the Moonlight Out (Pegasus Crime), which has received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist, with PW calling the novel “masterly literary noir.” William’s EQMM debut, “Jianjun Ling and the Sad Case of Sonny La Grassa,” appears in our current issue (November/December 2021). In a sense, that story shares a theme with this post—a childhood awakening to the power of reading and storytelling, and the mystery in particular —Janet Hutchings

Sister Agnes was my fourth grade teacher. Most of the other nuns at my school were battle-hardened women in their fifties and sixties, tough and mean. But Sister Agnes was young and sweet. She glowed incandescent with joy. One of those people who really believed in God and goodness and hadn’t been disenchanted by anything or had been and had gotten over it. She was like walking electricity. Joy in the hallways. Joy in the classroom. Joy in the schoolyard. Joy everywhere. We, her students—who, without exception, loved her unabashedly—thought she was an angel. Forget the wings. Forget whatever else people expected of angels. She was it, the real deal. We commiserated about her kindness and her grace, marveling at our luck to have her as a teacher at our small Catholic school in southern Brooklyn.

We studied her. I followed her up to the convent on the fifth floor one day and watched her disappear into the secret lair of the nuns where no kid had ever set foot as far as anybody knew. I saw her at the Ulmer Park library on a Wednesday afternoon after dismissal. She was a big reader. She had a stack of mystery novels, the Mylar wrapping sleek and shiny under her soft hands. I read the names on the spines: Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Daphne du Maurier, G.K. Chesterton. I didn’t know nuns read books other than the Bible. I was shocked and happy.

In school the next day, I brought a mystery novel that I’d gotten at the library. I read during lunch and even during class. I liked mysteries, but my goal was simply to get Sister Agnes to notice me in a new way. I wanted her to think I was a kindred spirit, another great lover of mysteries, not just any regular boy. It was an Agatha Christie book. The print was small.         

Sister Agnes finally saw that I wasn’t doing my schoolwork. She floated over and flashed her heavenly smile. “What are you reading?” she asked. The other nuns would’ve snatched my book away, made a spectacle of me, an example.

I held the book up.

“I love that one,” she said.

“Me too,” I said. My cheeks flushed. “Your name is close to her name. Agatha. Agnes.”

She nodded. She didn’t tell me to stop reading and focus on my schoolwork. An angel.

Later that week, she asked to see me after class. I was worried. Maybe she was secretly mad. Maybe she felt like I was taking advantage of her good nature. I approached her desk with my head down. “Yes, Sister Agnes?” I said.

“I have something for you,” she said. She opened her desk and took out a plastic grocery bag filled with books. “I get most of my books at the library, but Sister Ellen gave these to me years ago. I read most of them multiple times. I like to reread books. I thought you might be interested in taking them off my hands. I saw you reading, and it made me so happy. When I was a child, my aunt always gave me books. I wouldn’t be who I am if she hadn’t done that.”

I took the bag and looked through the books. They were all paperbacks. Mystery novels. I recognized some of the names. I touched the covers. “Thank you,” I said.

“Maybe we can have a little book club?” she said. “You know, talk about the books after you read them.”

My mind was on fire. My own private book club with Sister Agnes! I wondered where we would meet. Maybe out in the schoolyard, just leaning against the brick wall of the school. Or maybe on the church steps. I imagined this book club lasting for years. I imagined myself getting older and Sister Agnes staying the same age.

I went home after school and finished my library book and then picked one from the bag at random and started reading. It was small enough to fit in my back pocket. I brought it with me to school the next day. Sister Agnes smiled when she saw me reading during class.

We met after school the following week. She took me up to the convent. As far as I knew, I was the first kid who’d ever stepped foot in the place. The other nuns—even the meanest ones—greeted me like I as welcome there. It was a big apartment, really. Nothing special. Regular furniture and regular light and a calendar on the wall. Smelled a little different—holy or something—but that was the only thing that was off. They even had a TV and VCR. Stacks of VHS tapes, too. They had Rain Man and The Color of Money! Imagine a bunch of nuns watching those movies! 

We sat at a small table set up with two chairs against the wall just off the kitchen, an empty vase on a lace doily between us. I marveled at what was on the table: folded newspapers (the nuns read the Daily News!), lottery tickets, a hulking ring of keys, a magnifying glass, a scratchpad. Sister Agnes cleared most of it away and brought me a cup of tea. She said she didn’t take milk and sugar, but she asked me if I wanted some. I shook my head. I wanted her to think I wasn’t the milk-and-sugar type. She brought me tea in a fragile cup on a dainty saucer. I’d never seen such a thing. In my apartment, we had mugs and most of those mugs had busted handles repaired by my grandpa.   

She asked me what I thought about the book I was reading. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to talk about books. She took the pressure off and started talking about why she loved the book. She had a great memory. It’d been years since she last read it, but she remembered everything. I was in love with listening to her, swept up by her words, but I was also looking around at the convent, taking in small details. My pals would require me to give a full report in the schoolyard the next day.

She talked about why she liked mysteries so much. She said life was a mystery. She said God was a mystery. She said she liked wondering about all the possibilities. She said she liked feeling like a detective. Mysteries could be many things. They could be like puzzles or like confessions. I watched her hands, one resting on the table, the other lifting the teacup to her mouth. I didn’t say much. I didn’t know how. I answered questions, usually in a word or two, when she asked. I nodded. She probably thought I was uncomfortable, that I was having a terrible time or that it felt like detention or punishment. It was the best day of my life.

Sister Agnes disappeared a month later. Not disappeared in any scary sense. We didn’t know much. She just wasn’t around anymore. She was there and then she was gone. She didn’t say goodbye. When we asked, the other nuns said she went home to be with her family. We didn’t know where home was. I asked if there was an address where I could write to her. I wanted to tell her that I was still reading the books she’d given me. I knew she’d write me back. They said they didn’t have an address, but they promised to get it. No one ever found out anything. Or, if they did, they didn’t tell us. We were expected to forget Sister Agnes. I still don’t know what happened to her. I wondered if she stopped being a nun. I pictured her on a train somewhere, happy, reading. I hoped she was okay. I wanted to say thank you, but I never could. I still have the books she gave me. I even still have the plastic bag they came in, a white Waldbaum’s bag with green print; it’s in a crate in the attic at my mom’s house. Sister Agnes, wherever you are, thank you for teaching me to believe in mysteries.  

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7 Responses to The Nun Who Read Mysteries (by William Boyle)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    What a lovely piece — and for once I think I prefer the mystery at the end remaining unsolved. We don’t need to know what happened to Sister Agnes. She was there, and then she was gone. That’s a perfect metaphor, complete in its incompleteness….

  2. W Quick says:

    Loved this engaging memoir/essay. Thanks to all the Sister Agneses that are out there sharing the joy of reading with children.

  3. jeffbaker307 says:

    Oh, what a wonderful story! I too had teachers who encouraged my love of reading! Thank you for sharing! Deus benedicat Sister Agnes!

  4. Christine Poulson says:

    Lovely. I agree with Josh. We don’t need to know any more,

  5. Seems like you learned all the right lessons. Beautiful piece. Nuns can be very powerful people and a shared love of reading is a true gift.

  6. Stefano Cossara says:

    I only had nuns as teachers for a short time in kindergarten, and they were the “tough and mean” kind. This post brought back the colors and smells of place, and gave me the desire to write about it. Thank you!

  7. Stefano Cossara says:

    Gifted teachers leave their students with something beyond pure information, and their humanity is no less important than their erudition.

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