Don’t mistake: Their natures are corrupt. As Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” Greed, hatred, lust, lies — most people are marked by these in some measure. We all bear their stain. But forces internal and external, graces particular and common, hold these corruptions in check.
Being held in check, sometimes these corruptions escape scrutiny, are ignored, are forgotten. But Peter in his first letter says — pick your translation — be vigilant, be watchful, be alert, be careful “because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
The detective novel, true-crime book, or journalistic exposé of an underground enterprise provide flavors of life otherwise untasted by people whose circumstances, fears, virtues, and providences protect them from the defects of their own characters. These stories point out the lion, show where the devil lurks, open the ledgers and add up the wages of sin. The reader looks over Christ’s shoulder as he curses the fig tree.
This doesn’t mean that they tie everything up neatly in the end, sheep in this paddock, goats in the other, that, as Miss Prism says in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” Contra Prism, that is not necessarily “what Fiction means.” Nor true crime, nor journalistic exposés.
Justice in this world is a shadow of reality in the next. Fiction that tidies up tragedy, crime, and corruption tends toward falseness. Same with any nonfiction account that skirts the results of man’s sin hoping to portray a conclusion unmarbled by human defect.
The defects make honesty essential. The lion still prowls. Averting the eyes is dangerous. Augustine says in book three of The City of God that we should “look at the naked deeds: weigh them naked, judge them naked,” that we should discard “deluding whitewashes.”
No one has to plow through the pages of Walker Percy’s Lancelot or Bruce Porter’s Blow. But that’s not to say they wouldn’t benefit if they did.