Whenever asked the question, “What have you been reading lately?” and my answer is, “A murder mystery,” I feel I must qualify and explain myself. There is a stereotype at least in my world that nice people don’t read murder mysteries—or, if they do, they read them in secret in the dark by flashlight. As I have grown and thought more about Charlotte Mason’s idea of a living book (and read more murder mysteries), I have concluded that some murder mysteries, far from signifying the corruption of my mental faculties, or my decline into twaddle-reading, are actually good for me and are helpful to my correct understanding of God and his world.
First, I want to propose that there are living books that are murder mysteries[i]. Certainly, bad murder mysteries abound; they do not convey truth about the world, people, or God. They are poorly written, often glorifying violence or the “thrill” of murder and evil— they are twaddle or worse. But there are also murder mysteries which are well-crafted, inspiring, thought-provoking, and truthful books. They don’t preach[ii], but illustrate, inspire, warn, and paint pictures for the imagination[iii]. Some of my favorite authors of these kinds of mysteries are Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and Ellis Peters. Brother Cadfael books, by Ellis Peters, for example, give such a vivid picture of monastic life in 12th century England that your back warms from the sun streaming into Brother Cadfael’s herbarium at the Shrewsbury Monastery. Or there is Dorothy Sayers who can weave John Donne quotes seamlessly into conversation where you would only catch them if you had happened to study his poetry for a term.
But, to get to the heart of my case[iv] for mysteries of murder, detection, and investigation, here are some ideas from other writers, beginning with Dorothy Sayers & Jill Paton-Walsh who first started me thinking about the unique benefits in these stories:
‘You seem not to appreciate the importance of your special form,’ he said. ‘Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a 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.’
‘But it is just a vision, Peter. The world we live in is not like that.’
‘It sometimes is,’ he said. ‘Besides, hasn’t it occurred to you that to be beneficent, a vision does not have to be true?’
‘What benefits could be conferred by falsehood?’ she asked.
‘Not falsehood, Harriet; idealism. 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.’[v]
However, I don’t think Sayers & Walsh go far enough. Murder mysteries give a view of the world that, more than “ought to be true,” is true (though we cannot see it now). Other authors, in the genres of fairy tales and poetry, have pointed out the far-sightedness and ability to look beyond this place of sin and tears[vi] which murder mysteries also contain:
“‘. . . poetry seems to endow human nature with that which lies beyond the power of history, and to gratify the mind with at least the shadow of things where the substance cannot be had…’
‘Bacon points out that since we live in a fallen world, prose speaks to us of those things we are familiar with. But God originally created a paradise, and that paradise will be restored in the resurrection. According to Bacon, poetry alone[vii] is able to inspire our imagination to see beyond the fallen world and towards the glorious state.’”[viii]
‘Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.’[ix]
Murder mysteries portray a reality that really is coming, but is not yet here—this is where they relate to poetry and fairy tales. They attest to the fact that it is not evil that is ultimate, but good, that there is a Saint George to slay the Dragon, that there is a Savior who has died to set us free, and a King who is coming. There will be justice one day; Romans reads, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”[x] Of course, other types of good books give a view of justice as well, but murder mysteries are uniquely focused on it because their plot revolves around justice done and not done.
In addition, the obvious assumption of these books is the reality of sin. There is no murder mystery if there is no murder. The plot is formed on the accounts of conflicting stories, lies, and half-truths, which are unraveled and brought to light. The stories weave together both a fallen world, where murder is done out of greed, lust, and pride—which is the world we see out the window and in the mirror—and the world that is not yet here, where all that is done in secret is laid bare.[xi]
I hope my thoughts have encouraged you to bring some murder mysteries out of the closet and onto the couch. These books are worth reading because in them we see truth, learn truth and are reminded of truth; we see that we and our fellow men are great sinners, but that Christ is a great Savior[xii] and will make all things right one day. And further, the delightful thing about living books—some murder mysteries not excluded—is that there’s always a feast in them, never just one truth or new thought; and we learn about history, nature, geography, writing, and…I’ll let you tell me what else.
[i] Since conciseness is a virtue in writing I considered writing “living murder mysteries,” but decided the oxymoronic nature of the words might distract rather than illuminate.
[ii] Charlotte Mason writes on the “not preaching style of teaching” in Ourselves Part II, pg 11: “Literature is full of teaching, by precept and example, concerning the management of our physical nature . . . the way such teaching should come to us is, here a little and there a little, incidentally, from books which we read for the interest of the story, the beauty of the poem, or the grace of writing.”
[iii] Of course there are good mysteries I don’t agree with 100% (as with any book), so content, and age-appropriateness, etc, need to be thought through. Areas of disagreement do make for good discussions, though.
[iv] No pun intended.
[v] Thrones and Dominations by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh
[vi] Quoted from Dorothy Day’s amazing poem, “Conquered”.
[vii] I agree that poetry has some unique powers to look beyond the fall, but, as I propose, I think in some areas, mysteries, fairy tales and some other literature also have some of this ability.
[viii] Introducing the Savior of the World by Art Middlekauff in Essays on the Life and Work of Charlotte Mason.
[ix] The Red Angel from Tremendous Trifles by G.K Chesterton
[x] Romans 12:19
[xi] Luke 8:17
[xii]This is taken from a quote by John Newton author of Amazing Grace who said, at 82, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
© 2015 by Kathryn Forney