Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Everybody is guilty

Nick Baldock at First Things on "The Christian World of Agatha Christie":
.... The plain fact is that detective fiction is a distinctively moral genre; indeed, a distinctively theological genre. Questions of guilt and justice are inherent within even the most implausible and incredible whodunit. The world of Agatha Christie was a Christian world. The assumptions, morality, and society are Christian. ....

.... In her autobiography, Christie admitted that in her early works the detective story was “very much a story with a moral; in fact it was the old Everyman Morality Tale, the hunting down of Evil and the triumph of Good.” The belief that the genre remained at this monochrome morality is still prevalent, but Christie soon outpaced herself with meditations on justice in And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express.

.... The sleuth, as bringer of truth and dispenser of justice, is always to some extent an agent of God, and Poirot was given to addressing le bon Dieu with a degree of familiarity. Occasionally he was more serious, as in Cards on the Table, in which he notes that a man “imbued with the idea that he knows who ought to be allowed to live and who ought not” is “halfway to becoming the most dangerous killer there is—the arrogant criminal who kills not for profit—but for an idea. He has usurped the functions of le bon Dieu.” The murderer in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is such a man; conventional, conservative and respectable, but also possessed with the Pride of Lucifer. It was for similar reasons that Christie was very suspicious of political Utopians. ....

...[T]he whodunit is premised on the doctrine of Original Sin. Everybody is guilty of something; it may offer hope that the problem has a solution, but evil will not be expunged as a result. It is one problem with one solution; it is a small victory in a much larger, indeed an eternal, war. The detective novel is the world’s most Augustinian genre and not, in consequence, especially reassuring. This has been understood by P.D. James, whose detective novels operate within the same cosmology of limited, human justice achieving temporary victories within the schema of a larger, universal justice only made comprehensible by reference to a divine Absolute.

A detective novel not only can be, but usually is, written without any overt reference to God or theology. This was not Christie’s way. Such references appear throughout her work, without being overstated or didactic. The independent existence of Evil is frequently asserted. The proverb “take what you want, and pay for it, says God” recurs often. In The Moving Finger, Jerry Barton asserts that “there’s too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will . . . God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so very busy punishing ourselves.” .... [more]
First Things - The Christian World of Agatha Christie

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