Two of the past year's bestselling novels bear the unmistakable imprint of religious faith: Life of Pi (Harcourt), in its depiction of a Christian-Muslim-Hindu youth adrift at sea, crying out to Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu, and The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday), in its murder-provoked quest for the Holy Grail. They are the most visible but certainly not the only books in which the spiritual mingles with the worldly. The journey of the soul—at times crossing religious boundaries—is a theme flowing through a number of titles in the current spate of novels with religious themes or aspects, while murder is proving to be a most suitable topic for fiction of the spiritual sort.

Journey of the Soul

When it comes to soul travel, no major faith group was excluded this year, with Jews and Christians joining their Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim counterparts on spirit trips. One ambitious effort, Qurratulain Hyder's River of Fire (New Directions, June), traces several reincarnated souls through 2,500 years of Indian history. The interaction between lovers and friends of various faiths—Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian—thrives despite religious differences until the 1947 British partition of India. Originally published in Urdu in 1957, River of Fire has been "transcreated"—translated and adapted for English readers—by Hyder.

Two other novels explore different facets of Hinduism. In William Garlington's Tara's Secret (White Cloud, Oct.) a young leader of a national revivalist movement in 19th-century India experiences visions that reveal truths that conflict with the movement. Climbing Chamundi Hill (HarperCollins, Dec.) offers a collection of newly translated stories by Ariel Glucklich.

An earthbound soul in conflict pits striving Buddhist Carter Cox against his baser desires in Keith Katchtick's Hungry Ghost (HarperCollins, May). Mixing love and adventure, Carter pursues a virginal Catholic woman he meets at a Buddhist retreat—and experiences a new kind of enlightenment.

Lee Langley's Distant Music (Milkweed, June) draws on the Kabbalistic form of reincarnation to follow the unfulfilled souls of two lovers who first meet as a Catholic peasant girl and an educated young Jewish man in 15th-century Portugal. The conflict among souls in their pre-mortal existence drives Chris Stewart's distinctly Mormon novel, The Brothers (Deseret, Nov.), the first release in The Great & the Terrible series. And in Philip Dunn's Promise of Dawn (Crossroad, Sept.) the possibility of life—or rather, love—after death becomes a reality for a man whose wife commits suicide. Their love affair continues as his wife makes her "afterlife" presence known to him.

Faithful Jews

Abraham J. Twerski's Light at the End of the Tunnel (Shaar Press, Jan.) explores the Jewish concept of the afterlife through the questioning of a secular Jew who is suddenly faced with the prospect of dying. Such teachings might have helped Charles Belski, who suffers from The English Disease—melancholy—in Joseph Skibell's June release for Algonquin. As he questions his own faith, or lack thereof, Belski's gentile wife finds the spirituality that has eluded her husband.

From Norton comes Little Edens by Barbara Klein Moss (Jan. 2004), a collection of short stories—many touching on Jewish mysticism—about the Edenic spaces people create and the serpents that come to inhabit them. In Brother, Can You Raise a Million by Shlomo Wexler (Devora, Oct.), a rabbi raises money for his yeshiva in Israel and brings two Americans together in the process.

St. Martin's is enthusiastic about Ruchama King's Seven Blessings (Aug.), set in a community of Orthodox Jewish émigrés in Jerusalem that includes two traditional matchmakers. Notes executive editor Jennifer Weis. "The book is a window into the Orthodox world, but it's really about how settling into a romantic relationship that will endure requires that there first has to be a settling of your relationship with God."

Other Kinds of Christians

The recent spiritual vacuum that has characterized the Catholic Church has resulted in a publishing vacuum as well, according to Anthony Ryan, marketing director at Ignatius. Outside of the mystery category, he says, few Catholic writers are producing significant works of fiction. The only significant group of Catholic novelists is so new that it held its first conference only last year; and Ignatius's bestselling author, Michael O'Brien, is self-taught.

O'Brien's A Cry of Stone (Sept.), the fifth in the Children of the Last Days series, offers a glimpse into the life of an indigenous artist whose talent takes her from the Ontario wilderness to the cultural society of a city where her faith causes conflict and rejection.

Henriette Delille, a historical figure, was denied entrance into a Catholic religious order in the antebellum South because of her mixed lineage. Delille's success in founding an order dedicated to helping poor African-Americans is recounted in A Servant of Slaves (Crossroad, Feb.), a novel by William Kelley.

Loyola is releasing three titles this month by Carol Lynn Pearson: A Christmas Thief, in which a stolen nativity set becomes a means of experiencing forgiveness; The Modern Magi, in which an unexpected complication may cancel a much-anticipated trip to Israel; and A Stranger for Christmas, in which two nursing home residents long for a family to spend the holidays with.

Mainline Protestantism is the faith setting for Rachel Basch's The Passion of Reverend Nash (Norton, July), which features an irreverent pastor charged with bringing together a divided congregation as her own life is falling apart.

Carrie Bender continues her Whispering Brook series for Mennonite publisher Herald Press with book 6, Timber Lane Cove (Sept.), continuing the Petersheim family saga. Also coming this month from Herald is the second in the Crossings of Promise series, Janice L. Dick's Eye of the Storm, focusing on Russian immigrants in America.

Murder Most Religious

Mysteries seem to work particularly well in getting a religious message across, as an investigation of a crime within a faith community requires interaction with secular authorities. Centering on the murder of a wealthy benefactor of a private college, the fourth entry in the P.L. Gaus's Ohio Amish series, Cast a Blue Shadow (Ohio University Press, Oct.), reveals not only the fragile emotional state of the prime suspect—a female college student who converted from Amish to Mennonite—but also Amish beliefs about the value of higher education. (Mysteries are a key genre for evangelical publishers as well; see "It's No Mystery—These Books Sell," in this issue.)

Gaus is among the authors that Morehouse publisher Debra Farrington recommends to readers seeking good religious mysteries. Farrington, who once viewed mysteries as "mind candy," has become so enamored with the genre that next year she'll teach an online course on "Holy Whodunits" for the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. "I found that religious mysteries were challenging me as much as more serious books did," Farrington says. "The good ones often deal with things like how religious communities do or don't work together, how people see God, how God works, how people in secular jobs lead a spiritual life."

Included in Farrington's syllabus are Laurie King's To Play the Fool (Bantam), and Michelle Blake's Earth Has No Sorrow (Putnam), both featuring Episcopal sleuths; The Ritual Bath (Fawcett), by Faye Kellerman, focusing on the Orthodox Jewish community; the self-explanatory Quaker Testimony (St. Martin's) by Irene Allen; and at least one Catholic title that she'll decide on later.

Among the welcome changes in the category is the recent appearance of more laypeople as detectives, Farrington says. What's more, she adds, mainstream mystery writers are no longer cautious about exploring faith through their characters.

Still, the cleric-as-crime-solver motif remains a popular one. Minotaur, the St. Martin's mystery imprint, recently released two titles featuring "professional religious": Last Things (July), the 22nd Father Dowling Mystery by the prolific Ralph McInerny, and Julia Spencer-Fleming's A Fountain Filled with Blood (April), the second volume in the Reverend Clare Fergusson Mystery series, which features an Episcopal priest. A third title, Out of the Deep I Cry, releases in April 2004.

Equally popular are historical religious mysteries, according to St. Louis bookseller Helen Simpson, whose Big Sleep Books specializes in mystery titles. "Some of the historicals do a good job of placing mysteries in a religious setting," Simpson says. "The worst thing a book can do is preach to you." She cites Faye Kellerman as an author who has mastered that technique through her Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series for Fawcett.

More from Mormons

Among the more prolific publishers of religious fiction are Mormon houses. This month Deseret releases the third volume of one of its most popular series, Hearts of the Children, which follows the lives of a Mormon family across several generations. How Many Roads? by Dean Hughes (see InProfile, this issue) covers the late 1960s, bringing the faith of the family into focus during the Vietnam years.

The clash between secular expectations and religious requirements creates a conflict of choices for a young Mormon husband in Vernal Promises (Signature, June) by Jack Harrell. A difficult choice also faces a down-and-outer whose life is turned inside out with a single phone call, in R.K. Terry's A Familiar Ring (Covenant, Aug.). Other recent releases from Covenant include The Eternal Bond (Aug.), the fourth volume in the Gables of Legacy series by bestselling author Anita Stansfield.