W. H. Auden once wrote, “For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” I confess—it’s an addiction I share. In the two months since I arrived in Africa, I’ve read fifteen murder mysteries (thank you, Hoopla!). As I learn to navigate life in a foreign culture, it’s comforting to fall back into the familiar liturgy of the detective novel. Mystery has always been a favorite genre of mine. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Happy Hollisters. Now it’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown.
Just before I left the states, I listened to a podcast from Close Reads on Sayer’s novel Murder Must Advertise. In the podcast, the hosts talked about the sacramental nature of detective fiction. Every detail, they said, is profoundly significant. Things look one way on the surface, but there’s another deeper reality underneath. That got me thinking about theological parallels in detective fiction. While cinematic violence easily upsets me, I feel centered in the ethical world of good detective fiction. Here’s why:
Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Murder mysteries are a kind of moral parable—an incarnation of the commandment.
“In detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers
“Murder is negative creation, and every murderer is therefore the rebel who claims the right to be omnipotent.”W. H. Auden
“Once a man is imbued with the idea that he knows who ought to be allowed to live and who ought not – then he is halfway to becoming the most dangerous killer there is – the arrogant killer who kills not for profit – but for an idea. He has usurped the functions of le bon Dieu.”Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie
Sin is crouching at the door.
The detective story invites us to reflect on the criminal’s motives and, in so doing, to recognize our own capacity for evil.
“No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realised exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton
Ponder the path of thy feet.
Detective stories reminds us that if we once give way to evil, it will be difficult indeed to turn away from it.
“Mademoiselle, I beseech you, do not do what you are doing.”Murder on the Nile, Agatha Christie
“Leave dear Linnet alone, you mean!”
“It is deeper than that. Do not open your heart to evil.”
Her lips fell apart; a look of bewilderment came into her eyes. Poirot went on gravely: “Because—if you do—evil will come…Yes, very surely evil will come…It will enter in and make its home within you, and after a little while it will no longer be possible to drive it out.”
“Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.”Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton
Be sure thy sin will find thee out.
The detective story promises that evil—even in the short term—cannot go unchecked. At the end of every story, justice will be served—a glimpse of the Dies Irae. And while we normally associate fear with the Day of Judgement, the detective story reminds us that there’s also a kind of comfort in justice.
“The judgment at the end of any silly sensational story is like the judgment at the end of the world; it is unexpected. As the sensational story always makes the apparently blameless banker, the seemingly spotless aristocrat, the author of the incomprehensible crime, so the author of Christianity told us that in the end the bolt would fall with a brutal novelty, and he that exalted himself would be abased.”G. K. Chesterton
The Christian World of Agatha Christie, Nick Baldock, First Things
A Defense of Detective Stories, G. K. Chesterton
The Guilty Vicarage, W. H. Auden
Reading the Riddle, G. K. Chesterton
Christianity and the Detective Story, Cambridge Scholars