Friday, December 29, 2006

Let Us Now Prey

Sarah Weinman tipped me to a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which writer Lauren F. Winner recounts the fairly rapid recent rise of “the so-called clerical mystery, in which the detective is not a cop but a minister.” Prime examples of this literary breed are Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Reverend Clare Fergusson novels (All Mortal Flesh), Katherine Hall Page’s Faith Fairchild books (The Body in the Ivy), and Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling stories (The Prudence of the Flesh). Writes Winner:
Whether it’s men or women doing the sleuthing, it’s no surprise that ecclesiastical settings have lent themselves to mystery novels. For starters, mystery writers departing from the standard police procedural have to explain why their non-detective heroes keep stumbling over dead bodies. Ministers, of course, come into contact with death all the time.

Furthermore, clergy are supposed to have keen insight into human nature. In [Victor L.] Whitechurch’s 1927 novel, “The Crime at Diana’s Pool,” Vicar Westerham figures out who killed his parishioner. When the local police praise his sleuthing skills, Westerham avers that he simply did what a good pastor always does--pay attention to the small details of the personal dramas going on in his midst. ...

But perhaps the true logic of the ecclesiastical mystery comes from the moral, even theological, shape of mystery novels. Christian apologist J.I. Packer once observed that mysteries “would never have existed without the Christian gospel. Culturally, they are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what [J.R.R.] Tolkien called a eucatastrophe--whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong. ... The gospel of Christ is the archetype of all such stories.”
Perhaps. It’s certainly true that classic-style mysteries--those in which admirable men or women unmask villains, and perpetrators are punished for their crimes--can be seen as morality tales, clearly delineating “good” from “evil,” and always allowing the former to triumph. However, the demand for new twists on old formulas is increasingly allowing villains to escape unshackled (or at least not fully punished), and heroes to suffer for their crime-solving. Matters aren’t necessarily put to rights after a period of chaos, and I for one have no qualms about such plotting developments. I shall take creativity over clichés--even those designed to reassure me of society’s sanity--each and every time.

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