Dr. Florence Barton is living testimony to the fact that some people are simply born more broadly gifted than others—and they put those gifts to maximum use.
Born in Drumheller, Alta., the B.C.-based octogenarian is a retired veterinarian, a pilot and flight instructor, and the writer of more than a dozen detective novels. She is also a late convert to Anglicanism and a dedicated member of St. Saviour’s Anglican Church in Penticton, where she has “served as just about everything,” including chair of the church council.
The Rev. Mike Stuchbery, who worked with her at St. Saviour’s when he was rector there, recalls Barton as “forthright and easy to work with. She has a serious side but also a sense of humour,” says Stuchbery, now the incumbent at St. Philip’s Anglican (Etobicoke), diocese of Toronto.
Barton, who writes under the name Anne Barton, published her first crime novel, The Evil That We Do, in 1996 at age 64, while still practising veterinary medicine. After retiring in 1998, she devoted herself to penning two separate series plus several independent novels, the latest of which is The Simple Life Is Murder.
Brought up without religion, the 86-year-old Barton discovered Anglicanism in 1988, when a chance side trip during a professional convention in England took her to Exeter Cathedral. “I was very impressed with the service there—the lay readers, the sermon, the music and the pageantry,” Barton says. “I realized you didn’t have to adhere to a lot of dogma to be a Christian and I thought, ‘I could really go to a church like this.’ ”
A lifelong fan of detective fiction, Barton started young with the novels of crime writing doyenne Agatha Christie. Later in life, acting on the time-honoured principle of “write what you know,” she decided to weave her professional expertise into her own mystery novels, and also to explore Anglicanism, church politics and certain theological themes. “I wanted to show people what the church is really like,” she says. For models, she took the books of Jewish crime writers such as Harry Kemelman, whose Rabbi David Small uses Talmudic reasoning to solve crimes. Along the way, he teaches readers about Orthodox Judaism. Faye Kellerman’s Detective Peter Decker series does much the same.
Her first crime series features Robin Carruthers, a flight school operator and also a hardworking Anglican church administrator, which opens the door to religious discussion. “The theological themes sort of presented themselves. I didn’t choose to write a book around a theme, though I did work on a theme once it presented itself,” she says. For example, the last book of the Robin Carruthers series, The Devil Laughs, explores the concept of forgiveness, and protagonist Robin discusses this fundamental Christian virtue with another character.
A second series, written under the pen name Carolyn Dale, also has an autobiographical element, focusing on Dr. Erica Merrill, a young veterinarian establishing her practice in northern Idaho and using her scientific training and animal know-how to solve crimes. As a young girl, Barton herself spent two gruelling years in the Idaho wilderness, where her father had moved the family during the Great Depression to work in the lumber industry.
Barton’s latest book, The Simple Life Is Murder, draws on those hardscrabble years in rural Idaho.
Barton is also known for her Christian activism. Recalls Bishop David Irving, former rector at St. Saviour’s and now bishop of Saskatoon, “She worked diligently to help anyone she could, and within the congregation she acted basically as a vocational deacon, always bringing to the fore issues in the community the parish should be aware of and how we, as a Christian community, could help. She helped fundraise for the parish outreach program. She was always the first to put her money where her mouth was.”
Irving worked side by side with Barton to build the first units of a Habitat for Humanity project after she spearheaded the establishment of the organization’s South Okanagan chapter in 2005. Although she stepped down as president in 2007 to refocus on writing, she remains involved. “Florence is passionate about Habitat for Humanity,” says Stuchbery. “She has a big heart for the downtrodden.”