Detective fiction and mystery novels have a long pedigree in the Catholic world. This may seem strange: Catholic and Christian authors writing about murder and crime? What’s up with that? Yet when you look at the long list of detective fiction writers, you’ll find many prominent names among them: G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and Ronald Knox are just a few.
T.M. Doran and Fiorella De Maria are two writers continuing in this tradition. Doran, an American author, has written a number of books that include references to the mystery genre, including Toward the Gleam and Iota, as well as Terrapin, a mystery novel that happens to be about a mystery novelist. De Maria’s novels include the acclaimed historical novel Poor Banished Children and the legal thriller Do No Harm. Her most recent book is The Sleeping Witness: A Father Gabriel Mystery.
The two authors recently had a wide-ranging discussion on the topic of detective and mystery fiction, with Ignatius Press staff member John Herreid acting as moderator.
John Herreid: Why should people read about crime? Isn’t that a morbid topic to dwell upon?
T.M. Doran: Why should people read about crime? I’d suggest the popularity of these stories derives from the broad spectrum of approaches within this genre, including psychology-driven crime stories (Vera Caspary’s Laura, Helen Eustis’ The Horizontal Man, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, which Hitchcock adapted), detective-driven stories (Marlowe, Holmes, Nero Wolfe), puzzle-driven mystery stories (John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, S.S. Van Dine), even speculative fiction (Asimov’s Foundation, Gene Wolfe’s Book of The New Sun, Rod Serling). Plenty of overlap, of course, but such a broad spectrum appeals to readers with a wide range of tastes. Not to mention literature with a crime/mystery element (Bleak House, Crime and Punishment, Graham Greene stories and screenplays). In my estimation, part of Agatha Christie’s appeals was her ability to compose psychology-driven, detective-driven, or puzzle-driven stories, and even stories with a supernatural twist.
Fiorella De Maria: Interesting that John asked the question—isn’t it morbid to be interested in crime?—because I think that one of the paradoxes of crime fiction is that it isn’t really about the crime at all. Crime fiction is enduringly popular because people love a puzzle. As human beings we are naturally inquisitive, we like to be intellectually challenged and a good mystery story does just that—it gives us clues to piece together and a puzzle to work out. Some of the finest murder mysteries don’t even dwell on the actual crime in much detail, the story is all in the solving of the crime and the unfolding of the story after the main event. Added to the puzzle is the human drama of a cataclysmic incident like murder, the conflicts between the different characters, the hidden secrets, and of course, the personality of the detective.
Just as there are many different approaches to mystery writing, the personalities of the most famous fictional detectives are also so varied—coldly analytical Sherlock Holmes, fastidious, conceited but warm-hearted Poirot, the child-like Father Brown. A thread that runs through them all, though, is a strongly anarchic tendency, which readers tend to find attractive in a protagonist. Most fictional detectives are very much separate from the police force and do not feel obliged to co-operate with the establishment, e.g. letting criminals go, deliberately misleading or goading the Detective Inspector. Fictional detectives who are detectives, e.g. Inspector Morse, tend to rock the boat and go against the instructions of their superiors. Holmes has his drugs habit; Father Brown is answerable to God, not a magistrate, and his Catholicism sometimes makes him a figure of suspicion. There is a theory that the official Detective Inspectors in late Victorian and early 20th-century British fiction are always portrayed as slow on the uptake (think Inspector Lestrade, Inspector Japp) because of the failure of Scotland Yard to find and bring Jack the Ripper to justice, resulting in a loss of public confidence in the police.
I would make a distinction between crime or detective fiction and mystery writing, as crime fiction is a lot more formulaic and seems to me to have more conventions and rules attached to it as a genre than mystery stories.
Doran: Fiorella, I agree that there are mystery stories that don’t involve a crime, strictly speaking, or don’t adhere to the crime/detective fiction formula. I’m thinking of some of Rod Serling’s stories and the mystery surrounding The Mule in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories. You make a great point about the variety of personalities among fictional detectives. To add to your list, the gourmand and recluse Nero Wolfe, Merlini the magician, Charlie Chan (der Biggers’ version, not the film version), Nick and Nora Charles—too many to count.
One reason people read crime and detective fiction is that these stories allow us to observe people in crisis and those pretending to be different than who they really are, something that fascinates many, along with the elegant puzzles that dazzle us (I’m thinking of Carter Dickson’s locked-room mystery, “The Judas Window”). But even more fundamental than, “Why do people read crime fiction?” is, “Why do people read any fiction?” apart from being entertained or distracted from the travails of life. My view is that stories, including crime fiction, can point toward Beauty, Truth, and the Good in a way that’s different than Scripture, devotional writing, apologetics, catechesis, etc., and for certain people who are wary of anything that smacks of religion or spirituality, such stories can open their imaginations to a different perspective.
De Maria: In terms of why people read fiction, I do think that escapism is a very major part of the motivation—it certainly was for me when I first started reading—but there is also the sense of companionship to be found in discovering fictional characters with whom one feels a certain rapport. It brings to mind the line in Shadowlands—“We read to know that we are not alone.” One could take that further and say we read to know that we are truly not alone in the universe.
I certainly agree though that fiction can be an excellent way to explore the Truth in a way that is very immediate and intense without being so obvious as to put off the wary. Nothing annoys me more than people who come up to my book stall and tell me disdainfully, “Oh I’m far too busy to read fiction; it has to be real!” It’s a bit like refusing to listen to a symphony because it’s “not real.” Upholding the Truth through fiction is certainly a paradox, but it is a glorious paradox!
Herreid: To chime in a bit here: during a recent discussion over dinner a priest friend mentioned that he had never been able to get into Stephen King because he found King’s characters so unpleasant that he didn’t want to spend 400-plus pages in their company. Fiorella’s comment about that sense of companionship that can be found in fiction brought it to mind. If we can’t identify with or really like a character, it can be hard to spend too much time with him. I think that’s why some of the more prickly characters in detective fiction generally have another companion for us to spend time with: Doctor Watson with Sherlock Holmes, or Archie Goodwin with Nero Wolfe. Holmes and Wolfe may be brilliant and entertaining to watch, but we do need someone else there as a bit of a buffer and a way of humanizing things.
Another question I’d throw out there: I’ve been reading some recent novels including one very acclaimed one which ends up telling the reader that the only way to make sense of life is nihilism. I’ve read a lot of crime and detective fiction including some that confronts the darker sides of human nature, and it seems to me that the one thing successful crime fiction cannot do without is a strong sense of moral right and wrong. Detective fiction doesn’t seem like it could exist in a purely nihilistic world. What do you think?
Doran: I think you’re on to something with the humanizing influences of Watson, Archie Goodwin, Captain Hastings, etc. They seem more like the rest of us mere humans than the super-human detectives they assist.
As gritty as the worlds of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe were, and as tough as these P.I.s could be, they weren’t nihilistic, having a strong sense of justice and a code of honor. In the Detection Club of the 1920s-1940s, whose members included G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr, there was a consistent moral code and “play fair” ethos, with rules devised by Sayers, Carr, non-member S.S. Van Dine, Monsignor Knox, even outsiders like A.A. Milne and T.S. Eliot. The Rules and Constitution of the Detection Club stated that every candidate for membership must have written “at least two detective novels of admitted merits” that do “not include adventure stories or ‘thrillers’ or stories in which detection is not the main interest, and that it is a demerit in a detective novel if the author does not ‘play fair’ with the reader.” No nihilistic stories in those days, though characters (especially murderers) often had nihilistic perspectives.
Going back to John’s original question as to why people are attracted to crime/detective stories, in her essay introducing Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, “The art of self-tormenting is an ancient one,” referring to how people loved to be “tormented” (teased) by a mystery.
De Maria: I think the sidekicks in famous detective stories do in many ways represent the reader, just as auxiliary characters in many novels do, or at least they act as arbitrators between the super-talented central character and the reader. However, it is also the case that mystery stories for the most part work best when they center around conversation. The presence of a duo rather than a single detective allows for the exchange of ideas and the development or discarding of theories.
I am not sure that a detective story can be nihilist in the truest sense of the word as the whole point of it is the seeking out of the truth and the administering of justice in some form or other. This does not mean that the perpetrator is always punished for his crime—I can think of many examples where a fictional detective chooses not to hand the culprit over to the police—but there is usually some sense at the end of a crime story of the moral order being restored after a catastrophic event.
When I was studying the development of the modern novel, one of the theories I came across was that many novels written in the 70s and well into the 80s are incredibly nihilistic because of the fear of a nuclear holocaust. For the first time in human history, a generation grew up with the constant fear of immediate manmade mass annihilation, which had an inevitable impact upon the imaginative worlds inhabited by writers. I am not entirely sure how much I agree with this, as human beings have always had to live with the frailty of their own existence and the prospect of being carried off by natural disasters, famine, epidemics, etc. It may be that the manmade nature of the nuclear threat is more significant than it first appears, but I remain skeptical.
Herreid: Interesting point about nihilism possibly being influenced by the nuclear threat. One factor that might have played into that is that previous existential threats on a large scale (such as medieval plagues) happened during a time when there was a fairly coherent worldview in western culture, where a trust in something beyond the material world may have had an impact in how that threat was faced.
If I can interject once more here: I was pondering as to what sets the main characters in your respective mystery novels apart from a more “traditional” or classic mystery novel. Not to knock the classics since I do love them, but Dennis Cole in T.M. Doran’s Terrapin and Father Gabriel in The Sleeping Witness have something in common in that they both owe a debt to the classics in an obvious way, while at the same time they step a bit aside from the classic trajectory.
Dennis Cole in Terrapin is himself writer of detective fiction, but when he is confronted with a real mystery that traces its origins back through the threads that make up his own life story, he has to go beyond the usual deduction of clues and into something deeper and more painful in his own memories and past. Father Gabriel in The Sleeping Witness is quite different from, say, Father Brown. In Chesterton’s stories we don’t get much of a glimpse into the inner workings of Father Brown’s mind: we stand outside of it and are treated to his calm and unruffled wisdom. Gabriel, on the other hand, is an open book to the reader: he’s a bit of a bumbler and not as sure of himself as he would like to be. But he’s also stubborn and sticks to a hunch even when he can’t explain it with the eloquence we might expect to see from a clerical detective.
Can you two share a bit more about how you developed these characters?
Doran: If I were to suggest that Dennis Cole is autobiographical, people would be inclined to give me a wider berth than they already do, though Terrapin is the most autobiographical story I’ve written, insofar as Dennis’ background and interests are concerned. So, he might be 30 percent autobiographical and 70 percent created/inspired. The 30/70 rule goes for my father and T.A. Cole too. Before I conceived Terrapin, I was writing short mystery stories featuring a detective named Cole Porter Palmer, and one of these stories shows up as “The Deadly Dart Mystery” at the end of Terrapin, with Henry Drake (Dennis Cole’s pen name in the story) identified as the author. In Dennis, I saw a person who has everything together on the outside, and demons lurking inside. Even though the Terrapin book cover refers to the story as a mystery, I considered the “whodunit” to be peripheral to the harsh interior journey Dennis is forced to take, provoked by incidents from his past he’d been trying to forget.
De Maria: Well, as to where Father Gabriel comes from, there is a sign over the kettle in my kitchen with the words: Careful or you’ll end up in my novel! I couldn’t possibly say which priest—or combination of priests—Father Gabriel is based upon, but his character is partly inspired by my son, who is mildly autistic (Asperger’s, to be more specific). Hence Gabriel’s combination of intelligence and innocence, but also his tendency to think and behave a little obsessively, his struggle with rules, and his occasional disastrous social interactions. Even Gabriel’s fears of not being good enough may stem from his tendency to perfectionism, which I observe a lot in my son. As a priest, I think his fears about learning the truth at the same time as knowing he must seek it are connected with his pastoral sense that when the truth comes out, people are going to suffer, including possibly innocent people. A guilty person may hang for the crime but whoever the perpetrator is, they will have a family who loves them and will be shattered by the revelation. I remember sensing that years ago in the aftermath of a terrible murder that made national headlines. An entire family, including young children, were shot dead, and when the culprit was sentenced, a friend of that family was asked on the steps of the courtroom if he felt relieved. He just said, “No, I feel sad. All I feel is sad. You can’t bring them back.” I think Gabriel feels a genuine sadness that a great evil has been committed which will have consequences for many people for years to come.
Doran: This may have been expressed in other ways, but another value and attraction of crime/detective fiction is the spotlight it puts on moral issues, big and small, along with all the consequences that ripple out from the splash of disordered behavior.
Herreid: I love the insight into Father Gabriel there—my eldest son is also on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and I can see now how Gabriel’s behavior matches some of those traits.
I think Tom’s last point is a good one to expand upon: the consequences that ripple out from the splash of disordered behavior, as he puts it. An expansion that I would add: in Terrapin as well as Fiorella’s book Do No Harm, the other side of the coin is how unexpected good can come from a reaction against the damage done by disorder. I don’t want to give too much away about the plots of those two books, but what are your thoughts on these two sorts of “ripples”?
Doran: John, I also appreciated Fiorella’s insight into Father Gabriel, and what a pleasure and privilege it has been to view her creative process. Characters don’t come out of nowhere, but from that mysterious alchemy of the author’s experiences and formation. The ripples that gravitate from a splash of disorder prompt some characters to double down on their destructive illusions, and some to grow. Dennis grows, but not without running the gauntlet and having to give up who he was before the splash. Though these literary experiences are concentrated in a few hundred pages, is this any different than what we experience on the path of life? What a delight this collaboration has been!
De Maria: John, I didn’t realize your son was on the spectrum! I’m very grateful that these days there is so much more understanding (though we still have a long way to go). My son has certainly benefited immensely from the kindness and resourcefulness of his teachers. As it happens, the heroine of my most recent manuscript, Judy, is supposed to be very autistic, with her obsession with maths and problem-solving, and it is quite a challenge to write a character like that convincingly within a historical period in which absolutely nobody—including autistic people themselves—would have understood what was going on, and where the character would have been written off as odd or naughty.
In terms of the “positive ripples” I think that is part of the attraction of crime fiction. In a sense, they are modern morality plays with a great crime/sin committed, a quest and finally justice and resolution. Agatha Christie tends to demonstrate this with a denouement (which I notice has been replicated in some shape or form by many crime writers since) closely followed by all the remaining characters sitting down together for a cup of tea and discussing their future plans. Hard to talk about this without spoilers… but I think that there has to be a sense that the surviving characters can and will move on, even if life can never be the same again, and that they will learn and grow as a result of their harrowing experiences.
Note: This article first appeared in Catholic World Report and is reprinted here with permission.