Saturday, February 10, 2018

The worm in the apple

Originally posted in 2006:

"How in blazes do you know all these horrors?" cried Flambeau.

The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent.

"Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose," he said. "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren't a priest."

"What?" asked the thief, almost gaping.

"You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology." (G.K. Chesterton, "The Blue Cross")
I have always enjoyed reading mysteries. I began with Conan Doyle, and soon progressed to Agatha Christie, and then to Chesterton, Marjorie Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, etc. I still enjoy those authors—whether in print or in the many film and television versions. A part of the pleasure is that justice always (or almost always) triumphs. Some great evil, usually murder, is committed, peace and order is disrupted, anarchy threatens, but then order is re-established, tranquility restored and justice done.

Later, I started reading the so-called "hard-boiled" authors like Chandler and Hammett and their many successors. The moral issues tended to be much less clearly drawn and the victory of good much less complete. No one, in these books, is unambiguously good.

A sense of evil is central to all of them. It is much easier to be drawn into the books if you possess a firm belief in the reality of original sin—the flaw in every person. The "hard-boiled" stories were more realistic about evil, though, since the dividing line between good and evil passes—not between us—but through each of us; and—in this life—there is no final victory for good.

For many years, now, P.D. James has been one of the best practitioners of the art of the mystery story. From a review by Ralph C. Wood of P.D. James' most recent Dalgliesh mystery novel The Lighthouse (2005):
IN HIS CELEBRATED 1948 essay on detective fiction, "The Guilty Vicarage," W.H. Auden argued that the appeal of crime novels lies in their "dialectic of innocence and guilt." A seemingly edenic community is discovered to have a murderer in its midst. Various false clues and secondary murders cast suspicion on nearly everyone and thus reveal the falseness of the community's innocence. With the almost miraculous aid of a detective who possesses superior powers of perception, the true criminal is caught and punished, as the community undergoes a catharsis that cleanses its partial guilt and restores its innocence. Hence Auden's conclusion that the detective story, though a worthy genre, is a peculiarly Protestant form of magic: a "fantasy of escape," built on the Socratic daydream that "sin is ignorance."

Auden rightly describes the pattern that obtains in the huge preponderance of crime novels—though there have always been some that elude the easy escapist comfort. The novels of P.D. James, for instance, mainly because her victims are not entirely innocent nor her villains entirely guilty. A complex admixture of good and evil lies at the moral and religious center of her work....

Either mushiness or hardness of heart prompts nearly all personal sins, James suggests, from the great to the small, from murder to gossip. The only antidote lies in the pity that seeks firm justice while acknowledging that everyone, even the worst, suffers irremediably. What we do with our suffering is what matters. Our sins most often spring not from mere ignorance, James teaches, but from false innocence. Despite Auden’s salutary warning, therefore, such detective fiction as hers enables us to confront our real guilt.
First Things November 2006: Books in Review