Detective Fiction and the Christian Perspective

Detective fiction is a relatively recent genre, the earliest examples of which are Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In later years, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle popularized this form of literature with his stories about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, as did Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. Detective fiction may seem at first glance to be frivolous, light entertainment, but the entire genre carries with it certain assumptions that correspond closely to a Christian view of the world. In the August 30, 1974 issue of Christianity Today, Lionel Basney wrote an article called Corpses, Clues, and the Truth in which he made this very point. According to Basney, the detective story contains the following key elements, all of which a Christian can readily affirm:

1. The story is based on a genuinely evil act. Evil is real, thus so is good, and the two are in conflict with one another.
2. Right and wrong are absolute, and so is truth.
3. The evil deed is the responsibility of an individual, and he is accountable for what he has done; one is not free to blame social maladjustment or the result of an underprivileged upbringing, thus shifting the blame to the larger society.
4. “Be sure your sin will find you out” – There is no such thing as a perfect crime; the criminal will always make some fatal mistake that will lead to his discovery.
5. Sin leads to more sin – Like Macbeth with his murders, one must add sin to sin, lie to lie, and often murder to murder in order to conceal the original dastardly deed.
6. The detective, in solving the crime, uses his reason and the clues that come to light. We live in a rational universe, and the detective story could not exist without it.
7. The detective, in solving the crime, acts as the representative of and for the good of society, which benefits when justice is done.
8. Good always triumphs. Though this may not seem to be the case in the real world in our daily experience, we know that ultimately this is the case.

It is also worth noting that modern mystery writers have deviated from the classic pattern precisely in the areas outlined above.

1. Protagonists tend to be as unsavory as the criminals. Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character is a classic example of this, but is hardly the only one. Conflicted heroes seem to be the order of the day, and all are inevitably morally ambiguous at best.
2. This leads to questions being raised about who the “good guys” really are. Since the emergence of the rebellious counterculture of the sixties, often the villains are the authorities, while the crooks display some sort of honor among thieves.
3. Some have even gone so far as to question the existence of the rational universe that is at the heart of detective stories. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a good example of this. Eco was an unabashed postmodernist and set about to write a postmodern murder mystery despite the fact that it is set a medieval monastery. Though he named his detective William of Baskerville in homage to Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, he constructed a mystery in which the clues did nothing but lead the detective to wrong answers and where the truth was discovered by pure chance. To add to the postmodern flavor, he chose a title that has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot or its characters.

Such non-Christian approaches represent a poisonous deviation from a Christian perspective and have the power to influence the worldviews of those who read or watch them.

[Excerpt from my Thinking Inside the Box]