Bottum on detective fiction (and GKC)

September 12, 2011

Joseph Bottum has an enjoyable long essay in the current issue of Books & Culture on ‘religious detective fiction’. Part of the pleasure in reading Bottum is simply to get a bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape — he has written earlier genre surveys, on Martian-themed science fiction and on children’s literature, which afforded similar delights — and also to contemplate the furnishings of the Bottum household, which must be prodigiously packed with books in every nook and cranny.

He raises the question of what constitutes a “genuinely” religious detective story? Is it enough that it have an ecclesiastical setting? A clerical sleuth? (He points out that even a casual survey turns up quite a few of those.) And how should we account for the apparent affinity between religion and detective novels? Again, a casual poll suggests that 10-15% of detective novels have a religious angle, which is higher than one finds in, say, romance or science fiction genres.

As to the question of examples of authentically religious mystery fiction, Bottum comes around, rather reluctantly it seems, to the “meaty embrace” of G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was the first President of the British Detection Club, and, of course, the author of the Fr. Brown mysteries, which, in Bottum’s estimation, are our best examples of religious detective fiction, on the grounds that the logic of the stories themselves is based on theological observations. I am not sure I find that argument convincing, but Bottum goes on to make some very astute observations about Chesterton’s fiction in general:

There’s no getting around Chesterton’s enormous virtues as a writer. The trouble is that he also possessed, enormously, the vices that come with those virtues. No one has ever written better at high speed, but (as Garry Wills once remarked) it’s meaningless to ask how much greater Chesterton would have been if he had been allowed more time to write, because he was constitutionally incapable of taking more time to write. So, too, the most enjoyable and the most exasperating moments of his prose derive from the same source: the famous Chestertonian insistence on forcing every thought into the grammatical structures of paradox. And then there are the narrative successes and disasters that both result from the patterns—the strange metafictional logic—he imposed on his stories.

On the basis of this “metafictional logic” Bottum connects Chesterton to Jorge Luis Borges, an association that is not as implausible as it initially seems. Borges is on record as an admirer of Chesterton, and I have often puzzled over the fact, for the two men would seem to have been about as similar as fire and ice. I find Bottum’s explanation for their affinity quite fascinating. He also pens what I think must be the finest one-sentence appraisal of Chesterton’s literary merits that I have ever seen: “We will never experience another writer like him, thank God”. As much as I love Chesterton, I cannot help smiling at that.

In the latter sections of the essay Bottum wrestles with the question of whether, and why, detective fiction is somehow inherently religious, or at least especially friendly to religion and theology. He shys away from from J.I. Packer’s strong claim that detective stories are “Christian fairy tales”, but spends more time on W.H. Auden’s idea that detective fiction is “essentially theological” because it pivots on “innocence and guilt as states of being”, and even recapitulates the basic Christian view of history: an initial Eden, a malefactor whose crime “bleeds guilt on everyone around him”, and a final administration of justice and restoration of innocence. This attractive theory, Bottum contends, is “marred only by the fact that it is mostly wrong”.

A murder mystery may try, but it can never truly represent in miniature the Christian view of history, for, whatever else may happen, the murder victim is still dead at the end of the book; not every tear has been wiped away. And the idea that these stories begin in a quasi-Edenic state, while it has some relevance to the classic English novels, bears little resemblance to the characteristic American form of the novel, in which murder and mayhem erupt from a seamy, violent moral landscape. Bottum therefore makes a softer claim: the world of the detective novel is “what the Christian worldview would be without Christ: sin without redemption; the Fall without the Resurrection; justice, sometimes, but never mercy.” The difference between a non-religious and religious detective story is then, in his view, that the religious story “superadds an awareness of redemption to the fallen world assumed by all mysteries.”

I don’t have strong views on this subject myself. I find his ideas interesting, but not especially compelling. I do, however, think his essay well worth reading, not only for its perceptive remarks about Chesterton, but as an occasion to marvel at the feats of reading of which an incurable bibliophile is capable.

Read the essay here.

8 Responses to “Bottum on detective fiction (and GKC)”

  1. Jim Says:

    Thanks for pointing me to this essay, Craig. I admit that I enjoy mysteries perhaps less for the mystery, I’m terrible at figuring out whodunit, but more for the atmosphere. Especially those from what I now know is ‘the Golden Age’ of British detective fiction, the ordered cosmos they take place in is very cosy and rather comforting. American stuff, rather less so. How this orderliness ties into Bottum’s Christian universe without salvation is something I’ll enjoy pondering — perhaps it would be more accurate to say they’re at root Platonic?

  2. cburrell Says:

    I’m like you, Jim: I can never figure out whodunit ahead of time. I fall prey to the diversions each time. I also enjoy the “set piece” typical of the English form more than the American form. Also, I have no great love for the sordid, and ofttimes wish these American detectives would be just a little more gentlemanly.

    Isn’t everything, at root, Platonic?

  3. cburrell Says:

    I will add, however, that those of us who are fond of the mild English manner can still benefit from reading Raymond Chandler’s famously withering take-down of the genre: “The Simple Art of Murder”.

  4. Janet Says:

    I am about to expire with grief at not being able to watch Gaudy Night this very instant–even though it is a pale reflection of the book.


  5. cburrell Says:

    Farewell, Janet!

    Somebody put her words in a baggie; the detective is going to want to see them.

  6. Janet Says:

    Thank goodness, the DVD got to my house just in time!

    I must admit that I was a bit daunted to see you so cheery over my eminent demise.

    Last week, I picked up a mystery by Mary Daheim at the library. I didn’t know anything about her; I was in a hurry, and it was close, and looked sufficiently undemanding for a relaxing read. As far as quality goes, it was about typical for one of those serial mysteries–about the same as The Cat Who Did Something-or-Other. However, the detective, Emma Lord, is Catholic and seriously Catholic. Her brother is a priest and her son is in the seminary. The man she is in love with (and who is coincidentally the father, 26 years ago, of her son) is also Catholic. They pray together a couple of times during the book. Unfortunately, they also think it’s okay to get out of bed after a night of unwedded passion and go to Mass–“Church is for sinners like us.”

    This is too bad, because the book also has some really good moments. It’s unabashedly pro-life. A few times in the book situations arise where women would have been likely to get abortions and they discuss how this isn’t the right decision.

    Also, the story takes place during Advent. Advent is important to Emma. One of the things she does is unwrap one of the figures for her Nativity every day of Advent, and when she does this, she is troubled because she really hated the murder victim and she knows that this is hindering her Advent preparation. Now I’m really curious about the rest of the books.


  7. cburrell Says:

    She sounds interesting, Janet. I’ve not heard her name before, but I’m making a note of it now. There.

    Marvellous! I’ve just looked at her author page at Library Thing, and it seems that she is fond of using corny puns in her book titles: Hokus Croakus, Creeps Suzette, Auntie Mayhem, and (oh dear) Legs Benedict, just to pick a few. Ralph McInerny used to do that sort of thing too, and I loved him for it.

    Last night I was at a second-hand book sale and I saw Gaudy Night. I almost bought it. I picked it up, carried it around, set it down, picked it up, and finally set it down again. I just can’t bring myself to buy those cheap paper-backs. (It was a cheap paper-back.)

    I did find a very nice edition of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales.

  8. Mac Says:

    There is a restaurant here located on the north side of Cathedral Square, the west side of which is occupied by the cathedral. It’s a very popular after-Mass breakfast/lunch place. One of their featured dishes is Eggs Cathedral.

    But I suppose that joke may be repeated in every cathedral city.

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