Among the 57 distinguished signatories – by no means all Catholics or even practising Christians – was Dame Agatha Christie. It is said that Paul VI decided to grant the requested permission when he saw her name. As a result, the document which allowed the Old Mass to be said, was known as the “Agatha Christie Indult”.
It’s a fun story, and it may even be true. It is not recorded whether Pope Paul was a fan of “whodunnits”. However, Christie was a phenomenally successful writer who achieved popularity in all sorts of unexpected countries, so perhaps he did indeed like to settle down with a murder mystery on dark Roman evenings.
There is a lot of truth to his [Auden’s] argument that detective stories tend to reflect an orderly, law-governed world which can be disrupted, spoiled and attacked by the forces of evil, but not overcome.
Many practitioners and readers of the detective story have been serious Christians of one kind or another. Christie herself was an observant Anglican who apparently ceased to take Communion following her divorce and remarriage. Her close contemporary Dorothy L Sayers, who sought to produce murder mysteries of literary merit, was also a committed believer. On the Catholic side of the Tiber, both Father Ronald Knox and GK Chesterton made significant contributions to the genre. Knox created the amateur sleuth Miles Bredon, who appeared in stories like The Viaduct Murder, and Chesterton wrote five volumes of short stories about Father Brown, who solved crimes through his wide knowledge of human nature. TS Eliot, the Anglo-Catholic poet, playwright and critic, was a voracious reader of mysteries and a defender of the form against its highbrow critics.
Many people have wondered about the link between Christianity and classic crime. The great poet WH Auden wrote an essay on the subject entitled The Guilty Vicarage. There is a lot of truth to his argument that detective stories tend to reflect an orderly, law-governed world which can be disrupted, spoiled and attacked by the forces of evil, but not overcome. They therefore closely reflect the Christian understanding of the universe.
Christie, Sayers and Ngaio Marsh all wrote stories which implicitly attacked the view that moral responsibility and Christian morality were simply illusions.
Despite their reputation as middlebrow fluff, many of the more distinguished detective novelists were interested in serious, difficult questions. These include problems of ultimate meaning and morality, justice and guilt. This is noticeable, for example, in Christie’s And Then There Were None, the plot of which hinges on how we might respond to the fact that people can be morally guilty of killing and yet not able to be prosecuted in the normal way. Dorothy L Sayers’ last full-length Peter Wimsey story, Busman’s Honeymoon, features her sleuth having a painful crisis of conscience about sending a man to the gallows. Chesterton’s Father Brown frequently reflects on what you might call the theological side of his investigations, most famously in The Queer Feet. Father Brown recalls his pursuit of a criminal thus: “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” Christie, Sayers and Ngaio Marsh all wrote stories which implicitly attacked the view that moral responsibility and Christian morality were simply illusions.
We see, then, that the reputation of classic crime stories as mere cosy escapism is not entirely accurate. At their best, these novels were intensely philosophical – this was particularly true of the “inverted whodunnit”, which came into vogue in the years prior to the Second World War. Examples of this type include Malice Aforethought by Anthony Berkeley Cox and The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts.
Such books do not pose the conventional puzzle, but instead tell us straight out who did the crime, and take us into the workings of that person’s mind as they justify their actions to themselves. We see the ease of self-deceit, and the way in which terrible sins cut us off from fellowship with our fellow humans. We quiet desperation and rationalisation. And sometimes, we see redemption, as in Crofts’ Antidote To Venom, where the murderer repents and finds inner peace in the shadow of execution.
So pick up a detective story; all human life is there, and a good deal of quiet wisdom.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also writes for UnHerd.
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