I first discovered mystery novels in the midst of writing my ThM thesis. Desperately needing mental breaks from a thesis that seemed to crawl along, I visited the neighbourhood library – and discovered Agatha Christie. I have been hooked ever since.
Should Christians be reading mystery novels? Well, I am in good company. J.I Packer (famous evangelical theologian, author of KNOWING GOD…) does. In fact the last time I met him (I had the privilege of staying with him and his dear wife two summers ago) we spent more time discussing mystery novel authors than we did discussing theology.
What is wrong with this picture? Nothing if you understand the true nature of mystery novels. The best apologia yet for mystery novels comes from an exchange between Lord Peter Wimsey and his dear wife, Harriet Vane, from the novel THRONES, DOMINATIONS (published in 1998, with Jill Paton Walsh completing an unfinished manuscript left by Dorothy Sayers). In the Peter Wimsey series of novels, Harriet is a writer of mystery novels.
Here, Lord Wimsey is speaking to Harriet:
‘You seem not to appreciate the importance of your special form,’ he (Wimsey) said. ‘Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of world in which wrongs are righted, and villains are betrayed by clues that they did not know they were leaving. A world in which murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victims are avenged, and future murder is deterred.’
He later adds, ‘Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course people read them for fun, for diversion, as they do crossword puzzles. But underneath they feed a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that.’
Perhaps we want a better apologia than one provided by a character in a story. Here is the Christian writer, John Leax:
“Mysteries are about crime and justice. An ordered world is disturbed usually by a murder. A genius, Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, or Adam Dagliesh, enters, exercises either intellect or intuition, discovers…who-done-it, and without revoking the horror, restores order. Once again the pattern of the Christian story of sin, retribution, and restoration is acted out.”
It seems then that even in a post modern world where we are told that people no longer hold to moral and ethical absolutes, our tastes in popular literature betray otherwise.
Mystery novels remain a thriving genre. (My current favourite writers in this genre are Tony Hillerman, and Elizabeth George.) I am not talking about the reading preferences of scholars of course. I am talking about the general reading public, who seem to show at every turn an intuitive longing for the story that begins, “In the beginning…” and ends, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all.”
Here then is the pattern of the human condition. An orderly world has been disturbed. A hero has to enter the scene to put things right. Order is restored. It is a pattern we encounter in detective novels. Only we know this pattern to be true. Heck, we know the real name of the hero. And therefore we know that when we reach the last chapter of history there will be a happy ending. Perhaps Dr. Packer and I were discussing theology all through after all.