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Joseph Bottum


God and the Detectives

Religious mysteries: a perplexing case.

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Oh, Dostoyevsky was influenced by some of the same literary trends that would give birth to the new genre (particularly the effects Charles Dickens achieved with such works as the 1853 Bleak House), and it's common enough, when describing mysteries, to point back to early, pre-genre examples of detection and problem-solving. Dorothy Sayers, for example, uses two stories from the Bible—Daniel's solutions to the puzzles of Susanna and Bel the Dragon—to open the first volume of her 1929 anthology, The Omnibus of Crime: The World's Great Masterpieces of Mystery and Detection. But readers know that such things are found only on the fuzzy edges of mysteries: recipients of a courtesy paid to their stature outside the genre, and most of them violating one or another of the famous Ten Commandments for writers of detective stories that the Catholic priest Ronald Knox inscribed in his preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29.

Mystery fiction was born, in truth, a bastard thing: its literary antecedents a little vague and certainly not well married. Praise as much as you like the three small tales that Edgar Allan Poe wrote about Auguste Dupin in the 1840s: "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," and, most influential of all, "The Purloined Letter." Mention E. T. A. Hoffmann's almost forgotten 1819 proto-mystery "Das Fräulein von Scuderi." Appreciate T. S. Eliot's comment that Wilkie Collins' 1868 The Moonstone was "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels … in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe." Give some acknowledgment to Émile Gaboriau's detective Monsieur Lecoq, who first appeared in 1866, and note the critic Julian Symons' claim that the 1863 Notting Hill Mystery was the first full-length detective novel. Still, the simple fact is that not much mystery fiction existed before the late 1880s. We recognize these parents only by looking back from their illegitimate child—whose name, as it happens, was Sherlock Holmes.

What's curious is how little of the genre had the benefit of clergy as it came squalling to birth in the gaslight of the late Victorian and early Edwardian age. For everything from Arthur Conan Doyle's first Holmes story in 1887 through the Golden Age of the whodunit in the 1920s and 1930s, religion is probably best understood simply as the received setting—the given condition, the background radiation—of the fiction. It was a kind of secret de Polichinelle: the thing no one bothers to mention because everyone already knows it.

Take merely the writers who formed the Detection Club in London in 1930, the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Ronald Knox and Freeman Wills Crofts, the Baroness Orczy and Anthony Berkeley, G. K. Chesterton (the club's first president) and his friend E. C. Bentley. Explicit faith certainly appears from time to time in their work—in the case of Chesterton's Father Brown stories, it cries to heaven—but, far more often, a Christian worldview (typically in a high Anglican form) is merely taken for granted.

Thus, for example, none of Agatha Christie's eighty detective novels and few of her 160 short stories would fit comfortably in an anthology of religious mysteries. Nonetheless, her fiction presupposes a world of vicars and village parishes, a setting defined by the liturgical calendar and the effects of Christian morality. And why not? Of the 28 founders of the Detection Club, Knox and Victor L. Whitechurch were clergymen, while Sayers and Chesterton were known for their religious writings outside the mystery genre. For that matter, Clemence Dane drew her pseudonym from the name of a London church, and Freeman Wills Crofts and associate member Hugh Walpole were brought up in clerical households. The culture of established Christendom was all around them, and they assumed it in their stories without a tinge of self-consciousness.

Perhaps that's why such older books are sometimes praised by the religious and attacked by the irreligious, for mystery writers nowadays seem to lack the innocence, or the insouciance, to assume a God-haunted world in a piece of light fiction. The clerical elements in the 1936 Case of the Stuttering Bishop begin with the book's title—but who would describe Erle Stanley Gardner as a religious writer or include Perry Mason in an anthology of Christian detectives? Under the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin, the British music critic Bruce Montgomery produced some of the most enjoyable classic detective stories ever written, including a 1945 cathedral-close mystery called Holy Disorders, but his works certainly don't belong in the religious subgenre of murder mysteries. Before his death in 2008, Donald Westlake established himself as the grandmaster of the comic crime caper, and his books use Catholic institutions surprisingly often (see, for example, his 1975 monastic comedy Brothers Keepers), but no sane person would call Westlake a seriously Catholic author.

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