Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Order restored, justice done

.... In his long essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” W.H. Auden, a self-confessed detective story “addict,” went so far as to argue that a good whodunit presents each murder as a microcosm of the Fall and should therefore be set in “an innocent society in a state of grace” because “the more Eden-like” the setting is, “the greater the contradiction of the murder.”

Auden’s analysis is persuasive, but his definition of proper detective fiction is much too narrow. The Los Angeles inhabited by Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, for example, is far from Edenic. With a dramatis personae consisting of blackmailers, prostitutes, hired thugs, and crooked cops, it’s about as fallen a world as can be imagined.

Auden’s insistence on an innocent society forces the detective story in a more purely allegorical direction. In the real world, there is no group of people in which one is guilty and the rest untainted. Even the detective cannot remain immaculate. Marlowe, for example. must constantly fight to avoid being subsumed by corruption. ....

I have already established that murder throws the cosmos into chaos. In Auden’s ideal detective story, this chaos is a temporary aberration. In Chandler’s novels, it is a reminder that although all the lines we see are crooked, it is still worth believing in such a thing as straightness. ....

In Auden’s estimation, the disruption of the paradise by murder creates a state of affairs in which, for the first time, “the law becomes a reality and...all must live in its shadow, till the fallen one is identified. With his arrest, innocence is restored, and the law retires forever.” The poet has no less an authority than St. Paul to back him up: “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions... [T]he law was our guardian until Christ came” (Galatians 3:19, 24 ESV). ....

Even if finding the killer does not actually restore society to Auden’s perfect “state of grace,” it at least reminds us that there is such a thing as justice. Our fallen world will never see a complete adherence to God’s Universal Law, but a solved crime gives us, if not a return to Eden, at least a foretaste of heaven and an antidote to nihilism. ....