On Knowing Who Done It: In Praise of the Detective Novel

By Jim Tonkowich Published on January 27, 2018

There is plenty of time at home, in the office, and in the library to read the Great Books, political and cultural journals, news, opinions and all that jazz.

On vacation, I don’t want any part of it. I want to relax with something a good deal less taxing. Give me a good detective novel.

So in preparation for our recent trip to California, I trundled down to the local library and returned with Thrones, Dominations.

Thrones, Dominations

The book is interesting all by itself. It was begun by Dorothy Sayers in 1936 but left unfinished. Sixty years later to novelist Jill Paton Walsh took up the tale and completed it using Sayers’ manuscript, notes, and a firm grip on the character of her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey and his wife, Harriet Vane.

Wimsey, younger son of the Duke of Denver, had returned from World War I with what we would today call PTSD. Extremely wealthy with no need to work for income, he discovered that the way to deal with the pain and anxiety of “shell shock” was by solving murders.

Over time he met and married Harriet Vane, a writer of detective fiction. Thrones, Dominions opens during their honeymoon and the novel describes the ways Peter and Harriet build a new life together.

Harriet, who had been a successful novelist prior to marriage, wrote then because she had to. It was her work, the way she supported herself. Married to Lord Peter, the need to write for income evaporated. Besides it turned out that the life of a lord’s wife was time consuming. Why write at all?

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“When I needed the money,” Harriet tells Peter about her detective stories, “it justified itself. It was a job of work, and I did it as well as I could, and that was that. That was enough. But now, you see, it has no necessity except itself. And, of course, it’s hard; it’s always been hard, and it’s getting harder. So when I’m stuck I think, this isn’t my livelihood, and it isn’t great art, it’s only detective stories. You read them and write them for fun.”

She no longer needs the money from writing and her books are not, she says, “Great literature, Paradise Lost; novels like Great Expectations, or Crime and Punishment or War and Peace. On the other hand, real detection, dealing with real crimes.”

Why bother writing — or, for that matter, reading — such frivolous stuff?

An Ideal and Just World

It’s a good question, to which Lord Peter provides an instructive answer.

“You seem not to appreciate the importance of your special form,” he tells his wife. “Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted, the 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.”

“I suppose clever people,” he goes on, “can get their vision of justice from Dostoyevsky. But there aren’t enough of them to make a climate of opinion. Ordinary people in large numbers read what you write.”

And here’s the critical point about detective fiction:

You get under their guard. If they thought they were being preached at they would stop their ears. If they thought you were bent on improving their minds they would probably never pick up the book. But you offer to divert them, and you show them by stealth the orderly world in which we should try to be living.

That is, detective fiction peers into an ideal world or perhaps better to say, a fully redeemed world where all is set right.

Telling the Truth in Stories

As it was in 1936 and is even more so today: few people will get their ideas of justice, beauty, the good and the true from Dostoyevsky, Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, Thomas Aquinas or Eliot. Most of our neighbors are not great readers or great thinkers. And preaching to them does in fact cause them to stop their ears: “How dare you tell me what to think; how to live; what’s right and wrong?”

Authors and artists, start your engines.

That leaves the stories we write with pen and paper, stage and film, pastels and oils, and even with our own flesh and blood to tell the truth to others. Stories that are like good detective stories: interesting, engaging, purposeful, winsome and pointing beyond the story to “the orderly world in which we should try to be living.” When stories do that, they point to the God Who one day will bring about the perfect justice and order for which we long.

Authors and artists, start your engines.

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