Classical Thought for Contemporary Culture

Why Mystery Stories Are the Cure for What Ails Us

Why Mystery Stories Are the Cure for What Ails Us

From the Summer 2017 Issue

It is impossible for us to fully grasp the cataclysmic cultural shift that was created by World War I. Each of us has lived and moved and had our being shaped by the world that emerged from that rubble. The War to End All Wars did not succeed in ending war, but it did herald the final blow to the unparalleled optimism of the 18th and 19th centuries, destroyed the remaining vestiges of the Medieval world, and ushered in worldwide despair, angst, and nihilism.In other words, Modernity was born.

In the century leading up to that Great War, the world—especially in the West—was dominated by an intense optimism that is difficult for us to comprehend. The world was changing extraordinarily rapidly. There were advancements in medicine and food production. The Industrial Revolution had raised the standard of living for most people, and technology was booming. Prince Albert launched the Crystal Palace exhibition to showcase the world of the future via British advancements. And, emboldened by a new “rational” approach to the world, promoted by Enlightenment philosophers, political leaders redrew the map. Ignoring millennial-old ethnic, religious, and cultural ties, they created new nations and dissolved empires with the stroke of a pen—utterly confident that they were solving the problem of war.

Poverty, illness, disease, war: it truly appeared that mankind was on the cusp of conquering every foe. Even death could be defeated. With the right combination of technology, scientific advancement, and rational common sense, the world was set to usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity.

But, instead of achieving Heaven on Earth, the world imploded on itself and became a living hell. And twenty years later, it did it again.

A death toll surpassing the Black Plague, worldwide famine, crushing economic depression: these were the fruits of man’s optimism. That technology which appeared to be the savior of mankind was harnessed to unleash unprecedented destruction. The whole world was devastated, birthing a tremendous global cultural angst. Hope and optimism were replaced by alienation, isolation, and despair. And the whole of creation groaned.

Erich Fromm, in his afterword to Orwell’s 1984, describes it this way:

“This hope for man’s individual and social perfectibility, which in philosophical and anthropological terms was clearly expressed in the writings of the Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century and of the socialist thinkers of the nineteenth, remained unchanged until after the First World War. This war, in which millions died for the territorial ambitions of the European powers, although under the illusion of fighting for peace and democracy, was the beginning of that development which tended in a relatively short time to destroy a two-thousand-year old Western tradition of hope and to transform it into a mood of despair.”

It seemed as if the whole world had been turned upside down overnight. In a blink, thousands of years of culture and tradition were cast off and a brave new world emerged in its place. 

In the span of a few short years, women’s fashions radically changed—and in the process so did social and sexual expectations. The Gibson girl with her high demure collars and long skirts gave way to the Flapper’s short dresses, low necklines, bare arms and legs. Corsets were replaced with free flowing styles that left little to the imagination. Women wore their hair free-flowing and short and began painting their faces with makeup—both of which had traditionally made up the uniform of prostitutes, not nice girls from good families. Women began going out without chaperones and the courtship culture crumbled with the advent of the telephone and the automobile. Every institution which gave life meaning and helped people to interpret reality was either in a state of collapse or under assault. 

The Roaring Twenties can only be properly understood as a reaction to the despair created by the war. In response to the meaninglessness people saw around them, the impulse became to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die. Nihilistic hedonism was an attempt to carve out some kind of meaningful existence in a postwar world. Traditional Christian morality and virtues like self-control and restraint were not just old-fashioned in this new order but harmful. They held us back from the thing that matters most—pleasure.

 In the arts and philosophy, existentialism, absurdism, and naturalism began to dominate. Suddenly, the idea that the universe and mankind have some kind of transcendent value, that there was a metaphysical, spiritual reality that transcended our physical being was rejected and replaced with the idea that the only reality is what can be experienced through our senses.  

And in this materialist universe, there was no order, no loving Providence guiding us and shaping the stories of our lives. Playwrights told dark stories in which men live and die and mean nothing. The world was portrayed as cold, dark, empty, chaotic, and meaningless.

These are the seeds of our modern world.


But in the midst of this darkness there were voices of hope. Voices which called us back to a transcendent reality, which tried to reintroduce mystery and wonder as an antidote to despair and angst. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both began to write stories that deliberately countered Modernity. Science fiction and fantasy became increasingly effective means to show readers a reality which reoriented hearts to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness and offered an answer to the hopelessness and chaos of the modern world.

Fantasy attempts to reintroduce transcendent meaning to the universe through the use of magic, fairies, supernatural creatures, mythological elements, and epic battles of good versus evil. There is something not just magical but also mysterious and unknowable in Lewis and Tolkien. The fantasy world is alive with meaning and things are rarely as they seem. And this strange and foreign world is beautiful and appealing, both answering and cultivating a longing within us for a greater reality.

But there is another genre that is just as effective at challenging the prevailing modern mindset, one which we perhaps overlook. Many mystery writers fought against the swell of Modernity just as fiercely as Lewis and Tolkien. And while fantasy achieves this aim in some other world—such as in Narnia or Middle Earth, the mystery novel does it in the here-and-now, in our own familiar place. 

Mystery stories had been around as early as the 1800s. Most critics cite Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders on the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841, as the creation of the detective story genre, complete with a literary sleuth. In Britain in the 1860s Wilkie Collins invented the thriller mystery novel. But it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who provided the prototype that led to the mystery novels of the interwar period.

The 1920s and 30s are considered the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, featuring highly literary “whodunits” that specialized in misdirection and concluded with the unveiling of the culprit. They were puzzles that a reader could solve with the clues provided. Ushering in this new wave were the four “Queens of Crime”—Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Nagaio Marsh,  women who dominated the detective genre of the Golden Age, writing smart, thoughtful, literary crime novels. 

If the Modern Era is marked by overwhelming alienation, isolation, fragmentation—dominated by the theme of man’s inhumanity to man, mystery novels dive right into the heart of that darkness. 

Of course, these stories all begin with a crime—often a murder—the most extreme example of man’s inhumanity to man—which unsettles and disturbs the reader and characters alike. And the entire movement of the plot is an attempt to make sense of this inhumanity, thus demonstrating the lie of Modernity.

First, meaninglessness does not exist in the fictive world of a mystery novel. If it did, the plot would fall apart. How can a sleuth order clues and solve a puzzle in a chaotic universe? Thus, in that way, the very existence of the genre challenges the prevailing modern philosophy.

Neither is there anything random about the world of the mystery novel. There is an underlying order girding the entire story. It’s not readily apparent and readers often encounter an initial sense of confusion upon entering the narrative, but very quickly order begins to emerge. 

The reader not only begins to perceive the truth skillfully hidden by the author but he also begins to order the story himself. He tries to put the clues together to discover the truth that has been obscured. He learns to think beyond what is apparent to his senses and to look for the hidden order. He discovers that it’s not that the universe is meaningless but rather that while the meaning is veiled, it can be perceived with effort. 

Furthermore, at a time when everything seems to be spinning out of control, where randomness and chaos and unpredictability reign, a mystery novel offers its readers the great comfort of a predictable pattern—one that we deeply long for even while we are tempted to mock it. The reader knows that the author will present all the relevant facts at the beginning of the story and withhold nothing from the reader. She will then cast suspicion on a variety of characters, one at a time—each one coming under the magnifying glass for a while and then retreating. All the while maintaining an adherence to a set of conventions that are almost cliché: a (almost always male) detective and a sidekick, country manors, villages, aristocratic suspects, bumbling interfering local policemen. Finally, after many misdirections, the least suspicious character will be revealed as the villain in the end. 

In fact, this pattern is a sort of liturgy, a form that gives shape to the greater transcendent reality of the novel and provides a set of expectations that allow the reader to participate in the work of the story. This is sense and order in a universe that appears to have neither.

Not only is there an overall meaning and structure to the world of a mystery, but every detail of the story’s material world is charged with significance. Here too nothing is as it seems. And in doing so the mystery author counters the present materialism and naturalistic world by creating a sacramental universe charged with meaning. 

For example, throughout a mystery novel the characters search for meaning in the most insignificant details, speculating that any random clue could be the key to unraveling the whole mystery. As readers, we participate in this work. As we read, we give every detail our attention and look for the hidden significance behind the ordinary.

And indeed many stories are resolved by very small details. In Christie’s “Five Little Pigs,” the scent of lavender is the key. In Sayer’s Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey sees the hidden significance of a crack in an egg and is able to find the real killer and rescue his beloved. In Evil Under the Sun, a perfume fragrance alerts Poirot to the truth. In one of Sayer’s last short stories, “Tallboys,” a seemingly random peach illuminates the entire crime. And in Sayers’ “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question,” the culprit gives himself away by using the wrong French article to refer to himself.

Each of these examples is a clue experienced through the senses—clues seen and heard and smelled and touched—and yet each of these also demonstrate that what we experience through our senses points to the greater reality beyond. Sometimes a crack in an egg is much more than a crack in an egg. Sometimes a grammar mistake reveals something much more sinister than improper speech.

And even moments that appear random are part of a larger order and deeper meaning. In “The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers,” Wimsey is able to solve a mystery and save a life by being in the right place at the right time. But Wimsey tells us that random encounter was nothing of the sort. It “affords one more instance of the strange manner in which some power beyond our puny human wills arranges the affairs of men. Call it Providence—call it Destiny.” Even chance encounters are purposeful and ordered in the world of a mystery novel—just like in the world of Christian pre-modern theology.

No matter how much philosophers argue that the universe is meaningless and random, for the hours readers spend immersed in the pages of a mystery novel, nothing could be further from the truth. Every seemingly insignificant scrap of matter is pregnant with potential meaning and significance. And that meaning points to a larger truth waiting to come forth. Secrets are uncovered. Lies and deceptions are unmasked. What is hidden shall be revealed.

Furthermore, in the random meaningless world of Modernity, transcendent virtues are an illusion. Truth, justice, and goodness have no place in a dog-eat-dog universe. And yet once again the mystery novel counters. As we read, we are desperate to see Truth revealed and we demand to see Justice enacted. We need to see good guys rewarded and bad guys punished. Our souls cry out for Justice. And if the book fails to deliver, readers rebel. This desire awakens the deepest longings of our souls—for Order, for Justice, for Truth, for Goodness, for Meaning. In a very real way, reading mystery novels rightly orders our affections. They cause our souls to long for all the right things.

In Strong Poison, Dorothy Sayers writes, “[S]he writes detective stories and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”

In addition to a great despair, Modernity is also marked by a profound sense of alienation and isolation. Modern man is deeply alone. In classical literature, a state of isolation is equated with Hell. At the bottom of Dante’s Inferno is Satan—alone, isolated, trapped with only himself. Again we see mystery novels speaking to this very concern. The nature of the crime at the beginning of the book disrupts a community—a family, a school, a village, a vacation lodge, a train, a dinner party. As long as the culprit is on the loose, everyone is a suspect. And therefore the bonds and joys of community are destroyed and replaced by isolation, alienation, and fear. Man is cut off from man. And they can’t live in that place. It’s an unnatural state.

When the mystery is unraveled and the bad guy is caught, Order is restored and Justice is enacted. But more importantly, with the removal of the criminal, the threat to the community is removed. Trust and love are restored. Friendship and true community is redeemed. The movement of the narrative is a move away from isolation and toward community. A movement away from Hell. That doesn’t mean that the restoration is always tidy and neat. Far from it. In the fallen world it can be very difficult to discern Goodness. Sometimes instead of black and white, everything seems gray. And sometimes, even when bad guys are caught, they leave a messy trail of consequences. But the very act of attempting to right things or attempting to perceive justice in the confusing moral landscape of a fallen postwar world is an act of defiance against Modernity. We may have obscured our ability to know Good and Evil, but the attempt points to the transcendent reality of both.

Mystery novels highlight a truth that we know deep down in our souls, one that we often cannot articulate—that Order is the proper state of things, that Chaos is a painful anomaly, that Isolation is Hell, that broken relationships should be mended, that we desperately need love within a community, that Justice and Goodness exist. For the truth is, the world is indeed moving from Chaos to Order. Justice is going to be restored. The Great Villain will get his judgment. The community will be restored. Love will reign once again. These novels show us the very pattern of reality itself. A reality hidden and obscured by a sinful world. But in the end all that is hidden will be revealed. A happy ending is coming.

The enduring popularity of the mystery novel at a time when most people don’t even read at all anymore speaks to this truth. In fact, Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. Only the Bible and Shakespeare have outsold her. The more that the Modern world spins out of control, the more people reach for mystery novels. They don’t know why they find the experience so deeply satisfying. But they keep coming back for more.

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