A STRANGE UNIVERSALISM Finding the Spiritual in a Murder Mystery

A STRANGE UNIVERSALISM Finding the Spiritual in a Murder Mystery January 12, 2014

Finding the Spiritual in a Murder Mystery

James Ishmael Ford

12 January 2014

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


There is a strange universalism in the Agatha Christie novels I have just started reading. Pretty much all the characters are considered “likely suspects” at the beginning. Everyone has a motive. Everyone has a secret. No one is as they appear to be. As Miss Marple explains in The Murder at the Vicarage, “Normal people do such astonishing things sometimes, and abnormal people are sometimes so very sane and ordinary.” There is something quite wonderful about following a narrative where right up to the end, the reader doesn’t know how the plot will resolve itself. (Can I travel the narrative of my own life happily not knowing how the story will end?)

Barbara Merritt, “Who Done It,” First Unitarian Church of Worcester Newsletter, 20 September, 2006

Agatha Christie died thirty-eight years ago today. She was eighty-six years old, and among other things had written some sixty-six murder mysteries. Many of these adapted to film or television. Today her characters live in the hearts of a very large number of people around the globe. As a mystery writer her fame is exceeded perhaps only by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes.

Now, in the Christian calendar people who are deeply admired, officially counted among the saints, their lives are celebrated on the anniversary of their deaths – presumably the day they’ve gone on to their heavenly reward. I also like that way of marking a life out from birth through death because it celebrates not just the potential we get with a birthday, as lovely as that is, but we get to notice the fullness of a life.

And so for me there are ways I see this anniversary of Dame Agatha’s full life as a marker of something special, something that encompasses more than a single, even a remarkable life. I’ve spoken of this before. But, it seems relevant to rehearse it, again. As many here know, while today I am burdened with a handful of academic and professional degrees, all earned after my late thirties, my primary and secondary education was at best, spotty. We moved way too much, following my father’s latest scheme or just ahead of the consequences of his last scheme. These moves that sometimes involved taking nothing more than what could be packed into a car meant our lives were pretty chaotic. And my mother, who loved my brother and me and worried deeply for our education, still, just did not have the skills to keep us studying in any coherent way.

However, they, my mother and my father, as well as my auntie and maternal grandmother together with my grandfather with whom we lived on and off over these peripatetic years were with the sole exception of my grandfather all voracious readers. For my grandmother it was the Bible and supportive literature. My auntie loved all sorts of things, particularly if it were trashy. She proved my brother’s and my principal source for comic books throughout our childhoods. My father read science fiction. My mother read mysteries. What is most important is that I have vivid memories of every adult in my life reading, commonly, every day, wherever we lived there were piles of books and magazines as the ordinary of our lives.

No doubt that profusion of reading matter all around me was a critical element in how I become who I am. At first I read science fiction. And I remain deeply, profoundly, grateful for how it opened up for me a world vastly wider and more mysterious than I likely would have been able to see otherwise. Then, as the years passed, my tastes in what I guess I should call light literature shifted. And for the past, oh, I’m not sure, but maybe as many as thirty years, my “relaxation” reading has been the murder mystery. Thank you, mom!

There are as I’m sure many of you know, almost countless sub-genres. Hard-boiled, action thrillers, police procedurals, psychological suspense, locked room mysteries, whodunits and the cozy might start off the list, but by no means complete it. And it has long since moved past being able to be called trashy reading. At this point in time it is impossible to dismiss the literary merits of such writers as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, P. D. James & Walter Mosely, just to start off that list. The universe of the murder mystery is wide, rich, and complex.

Recently I’ve turned my attention to why I’ve come to love the genre, or, at least the sub-genres that draw me in, largely of the whodunit variety, often with religious and or historical connections. If I begin the list of my favorites here, I fear it will take over this sermon, so I will just say this: As I’ve thought about it I’ve come to realize when I read mysteries there is something of the spiritual running right through it, whether or not there is an explicit religious theme or figure.

In fact the theologian Robert Paul has observed how many of the mystery novel’s “presuppositions are fundamentally theological, such as (1) a belief that our universe is structured on the basis of rational laws; (2) the conviction that ‘truth’ is real and can be discovered rationally by weighing the evidence; (3) the assumption that if all the facts are known, we can discover meaning in them; (4) the perception that there is real distinction between right and wrong conduct; (5) the assumption that human life is of very great, even of supreme value; (6) the recognition that although people are always capable of goodness, there is also within them an innate capacity for evil; (and 7) the conviction that we must strive to achieve justice for the sake of society.”

What we get with many mystery novels is a world-view congenial to much of Protestant Christianity, Judaism and, certainly the whole Enlightenment gestalt, and with that, pretty much the whole range of humanistic sensibilities. I could even go farther and suggest there is as my colleague Barbara Merritt puts, it a “strange universalism,” or, maybe better a “rough universalism” buried within many, maybe most murder mysteries. For instance Joseph Wood Krutch in his essay “Only a Detective Story,” points to an over arching assumption, with, yes, exceptions, particularly these days, but still common, where mysteries, detective novels, murder mysteries “provide that particular happy sort of ending which is the most perfect of all and which may be described as ‘justice triumphant.’

Detective stories, mystery novels, at least the majority, are so satisfying. As W. H. Auden observed we like the implicit confirmation in these novels that “we live in a beneficent and moral universe in which problems can be solved by rational means.” This is, perhaps, particularly attractive, living as we do in a world where we so often don’t see things all put together in the end, where real life endings are always messy and often rather more than unpleasant, with the unjust too often triumphing over the good.

Murder becomes the symbol of the rupture of the great harmonies, and the quest for justice symbolic of lives given meaning in their living. Maybe that’s why I’ve particularly enjoyed the variety of hard-boiled detective novels written by both Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, where the detective, is, yes, flawed, but who stands resolutely for justice, putting his hand to that famed arc of history, bending it as best he can, and almost always succeeding in his efforts.

To put this part together. I think our lived world is subject to some ordering. Yes, if we go to very big places like galaxies or very small ones like sub-atomic realms the seriously weird takes over. But, here on this little planet spinning through the great dark, there is full enough ordering, full enough of what we like to call consensual reality. Here we live where our actions always have consequences. So, who we are and how we live in fact participates in an ongoing creation of the world. And, with that, we come to understand every action counts. Yours. Mine.

And, within that world, this world, the detective novel, the mystery often tracks what a life of honor can be among the many possibilities, some indifferent, others that can cause harm, and still others that bring about healing and greater hope. It’s something kind of wonderful.

It’s from that perspective Quaker Liz Yates writes of reading at least some mystery novels as a kind of spiritual practice. She observes how “a well-crafted mystery is a puzzle of the human spirit. Who did it, how did they do it, and, most important of all, why?” To justify this she cites the theologian William David Spenser, who muses, “My theory is that the modern mystery novel is a secularized form structured on the ancient mysterium or revelation of God’s judgment and grace… The mystery story itself, in its quest for the criminal and interdiction of evil and restoration of the good, images the quest through a fallen world for a great and good God.”

Perhaps a bit over the top. But, at the same time, I think in a good murder mystery we might in fact find ourselves walking in some secular way, in some post theological way, toward an encounter with the world that hints at transformation, participating within our imaginations in the healing of the world.

And from there, perhaps we can even find that next step.

Putting our own hands to the great arc.

And helping the grand project of healing the world.

Wouldn’t that be lovely?


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