The Minister and the Murderer

A Book of Aftermaths

Stuart Kelly

Published: 1 February 2018
Hardback, Royal HB
156x234mm, 352 pages
ISBN: 9781847089229

Other Editions


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Published: 1 November 2018
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 352 pages
ISBN: 9781847089236

Ebook Available


In 1969, James Nelson confessed to murder, served a prison sentence, then applied to be ordained as a minster in the Scottish Church (The Kirk). The case split the church in two, and challenged the institution to consider its most basic functions, obligations and duties. Part of the problem was that James Nelson's crime was no ordinary crime. The bible has a lot to say about murder, but not about this particular variety of murder.

Stuart Kelly uses the case of Nelson to write a compelling history of the church in Scotland, of biblical and literary accounts of forgiveness and sin. The Minister and The Murderer is a gripping piece of literary detective work weaving textual analysis with memoir and narrative non-fiction. This is a book of soul-searching and speculation, deep thinking and fine writing. It is a knotty, riveting and mind-expanding investigation of truth and faith.

About the author

Image of Stuart Kelly

Stuart Kelly is a Scottish critic and author. His works include The Book Of Lost Books: An Incomplete Guide To All The Books You'll Never Read and Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented A Nation, which was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson. Literary editor of the Scotsman,Kelly also writes for Scotland on Sunday, the Guardian and The Times. IIn 2014 he was a judge for the Man Booker Prize. More about the author


‘[An] extraordinary analysis by Stuart Kelly, who is by turns a historical and cultural commentator, a theological and literary sleuth... [A] disturbingly entertaining book [about] the mystery of humanity itself, which faith cannot resolve but only endureAngela Tilby



The Minister and The Murderer is wickedly, reverently good. Stuart Kelly explores the fascinating case of James Nelson, a convicted murderer who sought to be ordained, with polymathic intelligence, empathy, and wit. His ingeniously prismatic and allusive approach - part history, part homily, part Biblical exegesis, and part confession - touches every field of the humanities; it is also enormous fun to read, unfolding almost like a postmodern thriller. I loved it’ Eleanor Catton

A colossal achievement. This is one of the most moving and profound books I have read in a long time’ Richard Holloway

An extraordinary book... It follows no known laws, fits no existing genre. Risk-taking but rigorous, it offers at once a history of the Church in Scotland, a meditation on the natures of faith and sin, and a searching enquiry into the soul and conscience of its own authorRobert Macfarlane

Engaging, challenging and entertaining...Read it’ Selected by Frank Cottrell-Boyce as a book of the year

Fascinating [and] impressive... A literary critic to the end, Kelly embraces [...] ambiguities, and his book is the richer for it... The book demands patience, concentration and even forgiveness. But it's worth the effortBlake Morrison

Profound topics are tackled by Kelly in a wholly fresh and exciting way [and] unlike normal writers, he never mistakes solemnity for seriousness, and refuses to think along prescribed lines... He is also wonderfully subtle and clear on the subject of faith... A remarkable thinkerCraig Brown

‘A labour of love of a unique nature... Beautifully written, [...] Kelly is at his best on the intellectual histories of the Kirk... Described [with] wit, pith and clarity... An extraordinary readEuan Ferguson

‘An unusual book: wide-ranging, sprightly, tangential [...] rigorous with detail, fiercely articulate, elegant in argument, fiendishly well-read... Often fascinating [it is an] exhilarating ride’ Susan Mansfield

‘Eloquent not only on the details of the case but also on its author's own life's path... The book is remarkable, demanding study of excursions into the nature of faith, guilt, remorse and expiation’ John Lloyd

‘Kelly circles the vast unseen ballast of knowledge attached to religious practice, which is sometimes self-devouring, urgent and altruistic at its best’ Eoin McNamee

‘Part true crime, part Theology of Despair, The Minister and the Murderer explores the hard borders of faith in the real world. A beautiful, deeply thought-provoking exploration of the history and purpose of faith’ Denise Mina

‘Remarkable... Kelly very deliberately and very brilliantly [...] is detailed and often provocative... The minister and the Murderer sustains its suspense to the very end [and] Stuart Kelly is a master storyteller’ Brian Morton

‘Stuart Kelly has written a remarkable book... Lexical richness is one of the book's joys [and it's] one of those books that you know is going to be with you for the rest of your days... The themes it deals with are urgent and current... This is a knotty, intellectually thrilling book but it is also humble, brave, patient and truthfulFrank Cottrell-Boyce

‘This is a remarkable book... A good book is a voyage of exploration for both author and reader [and] this is a sparkling and times disturbing book’ Alan Massie

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