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The Moral Universe of the Detective Novel

I’ve been rereading some of Dorothy Sayers’ detective novels this summer before the madness of my school year officially begins. If you haven’t ever read a Sayers novel, please do yourself a favor and grab a copy. They are delightful in every way.

Sayers of course is the same powerhouse who gave us The Mind of the Maker and translations of The Song of Roland and The Divine Comedy. She was the only female member of the Inklings (if only an honorary member). Her discussions with CS Lewis about education led to his writing The Abolition of Man and her writing “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

So, what’s an intellectual giant like that doing writing detective novels? First off, this is the woman who gave us the advertisement, “Drink Guinness. It’s good for you.” She’s clearly a diverse writer.

Secondly, her novels are filled with brilliant and profound social commentary, literary allusions, and political commentary as well as offering keen observations about human relationships. But she does it all with such a light touch that it’s very easy to miss all that is going on in a Sayers novel. Additionally, much of the commentary is uttered in an almost flippantly comic way by her protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey. Nonetheless, there is much to challenge the mind of a close reader.

But Sayers didn’t just stumble upon writing detective novels. Like everything else that she writes, she was incredibly thoughtful about both her content and her form. And it’s the form of the detective novel that fascinated her.

In Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey defends detective novelists, saying, “[S]he writes detective stories and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.” Out of Peter Wimsey’s lips but the origin is Dorothy Sayers’ heart and mind.

For Sayers the true detective story is an inherently moral story. (The true detective story, for Sayers, is the one which gives the reader all necessary information to solve the mystery. The detective never has information kept secret from the reader. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not write true detective stories according to Sayers.) And the morality of the story is imbedded in its very form.

Each story begins in chaos, a dead body, and the entire story moves toward justice and the restoration of order. In a modern world that increasingly denies that there is any order or any real virtues like truth and justice, the detective story creates a longing in us for the very things that our culture rebels against. We hate this chaos created by the dead body and we desperately want to see the truth revealed and justice enacted. We want to see good guys rewarded and bad guys punished. Our souls cry out for order to be restored. And if the book fails to deliver, readers rebel!

That’s what makes detective stories so intrinsically moral. No matter how much modern readers might feel, philosophically, that the universe doesn’t make sense, no matter how much modern readers might embrace chaos theory and randomness, when it comes to a detective novel, we deeply long for resolution and order and justice.

So there is this sense that reading detective novels rightly orders our affections. They cause our souls to long for all the right things. And it makes a lot of sense that the more disordered we become culturally, the more popular detective stories are. Look at the bestseller lists. What are people reading? A whole lot of people are reading a whole lot of detective stories.

Additionally detective stories are redemption stories. The nature of the crime at the beginning of the book disrupts a community—a family, a school, a vacation lodge, a train, even a dinner party. Some community is disrupted and the members of the community are broken apart and become isolated by suspicion and distrust and fear.

When the mystery is unraveled and the bad guy is caught, order is restored. Yes, and justice is enacted. But more importantly, with the removal of the criminal and the threat to the community, the community is restored. Trust and love are restored.

And the reader feels a deep satisfaction with that resolution. As the scholar Northrup Frye says, at the end of a comedy (which is a redemption story) the reader feels in his soul, this is how it should be. This is right.

We know deep down in our souls in ways we can’t even articulate that order is the right state of things, that broken relationships should be mended, that love and intimacy among community members is the proper state of things. This is how it should be.

And writers and publishers of detective fiction know how important this resolution is. They know that audiences require it. Even in stories with a post-modern twist where the bad guy gets away with the crime, the author lets the audience know who the killer is and so we do have some sense of resolution because at least the truth is out even if we don’t always have justice. But imagine a detective story where 400 pages into this thing, the main detective says, “Oh well, guess we will never solve this one. Next.”

There would be a huge revolt against that book. Why? Because the pattern is written on our hearts and we need it played out. We need to see the fall of the villain. We need to see him receive his consequences AND we need to see the restoration of order and the redemption of the community. Because we know that this is the very pattern of reality itself. Because of Christ’s entrance into the world, the Great Villain will fall, and the whole world is moving toward redemption. Order will be restored. Relationships will be healed; community will be restored. The happy ending is coming. Because it’s the true state of things.

And this is why Dorothy Sayers devoted her considerable talents to what might appear to be a frivolous genre. She was doing nothing less than trying to reorder our souls to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

(Look for more about Redemption Stories in my upcoming book, From Greek Gods to Super Heroes: How to Understand Every Story. Spring 2017)

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