To begin with, one must insist that the detective story is a distinct cultural phenomenon. Only a little more than a century old, the genre has attracted a following more loyal and (on the average) more literate than that of almost any sort of popular writing. Critics have distinguished the “ ’tec’s” form, tone, and intentions from other kinds of fiction; but they are hardly as exacting as detective-story readers themselves, who resent fiercely the intrusion of the spy story, the thriller, the love story, or the Gothic romance on their special territory.

The detective story was invented by Edgar Allan Poe. In three brief tales, published within a year—including “Murders in the Rue Morgue”—Poe struck out, as if by intuition, the whole timeless formula: the detective himself, unruffled, eccentric, scornfully brilliant; his sidekick, useful, bewildered, but admiring (he records the detective’s genius); the slightly dense police official, who fails where the detective succeeds; the murder without apparent clues; the carefully gleaned evidence; the chase; the capture; the explanation.

There are, it is said, only seven plots in all fiction; and of these, the mystery writer can use only one. His problem is to produce new, ingenious, baffling combinations of a desperately few elements: the body, the detective, mysterious facts that lead to a perfectly logical solution. He succeeds only when he outwits his reader fair and square. In this narrow room the mystery writer moves, and counts himself lord of infinite space.

The obvious temptation is to cheat: to build a body of clues that do not explain themselves, or to call on that anathema of the mystery fan, a deus ex machina—some person, clue, or motive that appears first of all on the book’s last page and explains everything. If he is actually playing fair, however—if the clues he gives us are complete, sufficient, and conclusive—then the writer may lead us as baffling a chase as he wishes, may equivocate and obfuscate shamelessly. The denser the mystery, the more satisfying its solution. “Seen from the outside, [the mystery] was perfectly incomprehensible,” wrote G. K. Chesterton delightedly in a Father Brown story, “and it is from the outside [of course] that the stranger must study it.”

After Poe, the detective story lay dormant for a few decades. Some authors, such as Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, laid their hands to it. But it was Arthur Conan Doyle who catapulted the formula to universal popularity. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the perfectly polar duo, the hopelessly flawless denizens of Baker Street—no one can deny either what Conan Doyle owed to Poe, or the unique genius of his new creation. Holmes has come so alive for generations of readers that he stands with Falstaff and Don Quixote as a literary culture hero of the first magnitude.

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After Holmes the mystery story took wing. George Lyman Kittredge, the great Shakespeare scholar, left to Harvard at his death a vast—and well-thumbed—collection of mysteries. W. H. Wright assembled a library of 2,000 detective novels prior to writing a few himself—and this was in the early 1920s. Since then, in novels by Dorothy L. Sayers (whose detective is named Peter Wimsey), Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple), S. S. Van Dine (Philo Vance), Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe), and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe), the mystery story has continued to build its treasure of logic and mayhem.

Detective stories make terrors into fun. Father Brown, wrote Chesterton, shared with a companion “a harmless hobby of murder and robbery.” One might object, of course, that Father Brown made a hobby of detecting, not of violence. But we cannot deny that the detective is helpless without what Sayers called a “bright, novel, and agreeable murder.” What serious values can lie in a genre that makes a mock of tragedy? How seriously can we take authors who treat sin as an excuse for games? “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” demanded Edmund Wilson in stentorian critical dismay. Many people, we might answer; and with some good reason.

A murder mystery is not about murder but about mystery—the ineluctable series of facts logical in itself but puzzling when seen partially or from the wrong perspective. The murder—preferably passionate, clever, and spooky—is only an adjunct of the real story. It is just a fact, a datum; like the grain in the oyster, it is inert but irritating, forcing the detective (and reader) to respond with appropriate curiosity. The murder generates the mystery; it demands to be explained. Only when the mystery has been elucidated can the murder be laid to rest.

The detective story expresses two purposes, one intellectual, one moral. The second waits on the first. But once operative, the “morality” of detective fiction is perfectly strict and unbending. It demands first of all that the corpse embody a real offense. Stories where the murder is a mistake, an illusion, or a suicide only frustrate the genre’s purposes. Second, the offense must generate real, specific guilt. The victim cannot have been killed by “society,” or by God, chance, or blind fate. Some individual must bear the responsibility. Third, the culprit never escapes, for the detective is (ultimately) infallible, and the outcome inevitable.

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The detective story can therefore thrive only in a society that can believe in, or at least imagine, such a morality. It is created by the concern for justice. Primitive societies seldom worry about assigning guilt. One killing sets off a blood feud precisely because the guilt can never come to rest on any individual but hovers over families, clans, or entire tribes. Every murder is a fresh offense demanding fresh retribution.

But the detective wishes to assign responsibility, and he does so in the name of society, thereby protecting it from the passions it contains and saving the community from dissolving into chaos. He purges the body politic of its hidden vices, by exposing them and placing their guilt on the right shoulders. In a sense, though we all hope to beat the detective to the solution, he acts for us; he represents the good. And the good always triumphs.

The murder mystery witnesses to two moral laws: “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Be sure your sin will find you out.” The first appears in the inevitable discovery of the offender. The second has a definite application as well, for it is always some part of the sin itself, some small detail that the murderer failed to consider, that betrays him. The murder mystery assures us that sin is, and always will be, vulnerable. The orderly world in which the detective works delivers up its clues intact and intelligible; it offers the murderer no sanctuary, for the truth will always win out. “Thou shalt not kill,” for the victim’s blood calls to us from the ground.

This comforts us, of course. Our lives seldom work out so neatly. Most of what happens to us remains impervious to our minds. The murder mystery offers the reader a chance to exercise his reason on a limited number of facts, in the confidence that behind them lies a satisfactory pattern. That we have a rival, the detective, only whets our appetite for hard thinking. That behind the detective is another rival, the writer, assures us that there is a pattern, and that it will be hard to find.

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The universe of the “ ’tec” evinces purpose, planning, design. Nothing happens outside the writer’s care; nothing has to be presumed irrelevant. Perfect economy is the rule.

In our detective stories [wrote Marjorie Nicolson] we find with relief a return to an older ethic and metaphysics: an Hebraic insistence upon justice as the measure of all things … a Calvinistic insistence, if you will, upon destiny, but a Calvinistic belief also in the need for tense and constant activity on the part of man.

To the clarity of its moral intention, the detective story sacrifices the complexity of real life. It is a type of “romance,” with moral issues crystallized into good and bad, white and black. Like fairy tales or myths, therefore, the detective story is escapist. But as Tolkien has reminded us, though escape from duty is infamous, escape from prison is only what every prisoner desires. The murder mystery allows us, for a moment, to dwell in the tents of reason and symmetry.

Why should a Christian read detective stories? First of all, of course, he should read them if and when he enjoys them. Not all the delights of literature are available in detective stories, as they are not all present in the tragedy or the lyric. But however rudimentary a man’s taste for rational exercise—or however withered by the artillery of an emotive civilization—it should provide a base for enjoying the detective story’s special pleasures.

Here the Puritan’s stern rebuke is almost automatically seen to be prudery. The detective story is not that “serious.” It does not pretend to be. It demands strict attention, and its aficionados offer passionate commitment as well. But it is a game, and its rewards are those of a game well played.

It is a civilized and comradely pastime. “To despise such stories,” wrote Chesterton, “is of all things the most despicable. It is like despising pantomimes or the public-houses or comic songs or common enjoyments of every kind that bind us into the brotherhood of man.”

Like romance, the detective story offers escape into another sort of world. Superficially, the mystery world is like ours; but essentially it is different. It is ruled by severe moral fiat: good is good and bad is bad, and good always wins. In actual experience most moral choices come not between good and bad but between good and good and bad and bad, and therefore exact the price of tension and regret. The detective story’s simplification of moral choice leads us away from this world into another, a dream-world, a romance.

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The escape is not permanent. Just as a game lets us fight, kill, and exult, but not in earnest, the detective story requires that we cheer for the sleuth and execrate the villain without reference to real moral complexity. That, in God’s sight, Peter Wimsey’s frivolous pride may be as bad as his quarry’s passionate error, or even worse, is no concern of ours. That a casuist might explain away some of the villain’s guilt makes no difference. Within the limits of the game, white pieces play against black pieces—but not in earnest.

On the other hand, to the Christian the “romance” offers another side. However murky the river of actual moral life may be, the Christian holds by faith a vision of altogether clearer and deeper waters. Temporary, worldly confusions aside, the best good is finally separate from the worst bad. The Son works always in redemption, converting the evil to the good. But there is a difference; Christianity rests, finally, on a distinction of perfect clarity. In God’s sight, things are (and have been, and ever will be) that simple.

We may carry a certain amount of this into the detective story, while we recognize nonetheless that it is a limited and self-conscious genre. The mystery shows society redeemed from hidden evil, made innocent again, squaring its accounts. In “real life” this ideal condition may never occur. But it behooves us occasionally to step back from “real life,” if only to see more clearly the ideals that we serve amidst its confusions.


Lionel Basney is associate professor of English, Houghton College, Houghton, New York.

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