I’m heading off to Eastern Europe today, where I’ll spend the next two weeks interviewing Catholics who are doing amazing things to rebuild the Church in the East. I’ll also be contemplating the idea of writing exclusively about chocolate and bacon for the rest of my life. No one ever says mean things to me when I do that.
In the meantime, may I suggest that everyone whose blood pressure has reached new heights thanks to the news and news coverage of the past week take a break from politics for the day and think about something a bit more edifying:…like bodies, blood, and afternoon tea.
Seriously. Sometimes there’s nothing that cheers the heart like a good, old-fashioned murder. And since today is Dame Agatha Christie’s 122nd birthday, curling up with a mystery novel is a fitting way to both pay tribute to her and distract yourself from the madness that life in 2012 has become.
If you need a little more convincing about the wisdom of my suggestion, here’s an essay I wrote on the topic a couple years back, republished here as my way of saying “thank you” to the woman whose books have been some of my favorite companions through the years.
“For everything there is a season,” the sage king of ancient Israel reminds us. “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted; a time for Thomas Aquinas, and a time for Agatha Christie.”
Okay, so maybe that last phrase didn’t make it into Ecclesiastes. But it’s true nonetheless. Just as the Angelic Doctor has his place in the summa of life, so too does Dame Agatha. There is a time for theology—for solemn study that probes the secrets of God. But there is also a time for mystery—for fireside reading that probes the secrets of man.
And that is exactly what the best mystery novels do. They tell a story about man, the evil he does, and why he does it, in order to both illuminate and delight.
Knowing that, Christie and more than a few other authors whose primary concern was Christ—e.g., G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and Fr. Ronald Knox—also concerned themselves with murder. They wrote about method, motive, and opportunity in order to incarnate their theology of temptation, damnation, and salvation.
In some ways, the world of their murderous incarnations couldn’t be farther from our own. Modern readers know little of English country houses other than what they see on Masterpiece Theatre. English village life, opium dens, and international intrigue have no part in our everyday experience. And yet, for all that separates our world from Poirot’s, there is much more that unites us.
The world, as Christie and company see it, is a fleshy sort of world, a world of bodies, blood, and afternoon tea. It’s a world of weakness and vulnerability. People kill. They lust. They hunger. But some also repent and convert. There is love, there is sacrifice, and there are souls who fight bravely for what they believe. And what they believe matters. There is truth in their world. There’s right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. There is redemption. And there is damnation.
In other words, their world is our world, the world we all inhabit, crystallized and sharpened to drive home the sorry and glorious truth about each of us.
With the help of hidden clues and careful plotting, those authors’ mystery novels look into the heart of who we are and shine a light on the darkness and disorder— both dormant and active—within us all. They also remind us that fear, envy, lust, and greed are temptations to be battled mightily, lest they lead us, like others, down the path to perdition.
That reminding comes in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most important way is through the killers themselves.
Rarely in these novels are murderers exotic criminal masterminds or maniacal beasts (Christie’s earliest fiction excepted). Rather, they are quite ordinary husbands and wives, artists, fishermen, and dentists. They are respectable villagers and aristocrats, loving fathers and mothers. They are, in countless ways, no different from us. But, when confronted with a choice to forgive or seek revenge, to love faithfully or lust unfaithfully, to be humbled or preserve their pride, they choose wrongly. And for that choice there are always consequences—the least of which is the hangman’s noose.
Read enough murder mysteries, of course, and the killers all start to blend together. That’s because in sin there is sameness. Men and women lose themselves in vice.
But they find themselves in virtue.
Accordingly, Sayers, Christie, Chesterton, and their like didn’t just give us ordinary villains. They also gave us extraordinary heroes. They invented the most quirky and cunning cadre of detectives—priests, old maids, and guilt-wracked aristocrats—each of whom, in their own quirky and cunning way, bear witness to the oft-forgotten truth that sanctity is far more interesting than sin. No murderer ever matched Hercule Poirot’s mind, Miles Bredon’s precision, or Peter Wimsey’s charm. No murderer is worth more than one novel. Jane Marple is worth dozens.
Which, for us, is cause for rejoicing.
Fr. Ronald Knox once said, “If you meet a man who boasts that he does not think [detective stories] interesting, you will nearly always find that he indulges in some lower form of compensation—probably he is a cross-word addict.”
It’s beyond the purview of this column to paint with such a broad brush. It is nevertheless true that to be interested in a good murder mystery is to be interested in man. And to at least occasionally escape from the world of spiritual treatises and philosophical discourses and go meandering about St. Mary Meade is to see the forms of those treatises and discourses enfleshed in matter—the matter of a witty, intriguing, perplexing, amusing, and delightful (if somewhat macabre) tale of murder and mystery.
For the sake of both wisdom and joy, it seems both types of literary forays are necessary. Which, again, is why under the sun (and under the Son) there is a time for everything.
Emily Stimpson is a Contributing Editor to “Our Sunday Visitor” and the author of “The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years,” where she dishes on the Church’s teachings about women, marriage, sex, work, beauty, suffering, and more.