Last year when I took part in a podcast on the nature of literature, the subject of “the most underrated” literature came up. My immediate response was “crime fiction.” It was an instinctive answer, but the more I considered it, the more it rang true. There is a deep chasm between the significance of crime fiction and its critical reputation.
Perhaps some literary critics belittle crime as a genre because people actually enjoy it. The brilliant Agatha Christie is the biggest selling author of all time after the Bible and Shakespeare. Two billion of her books have sold worldwide. Even then, or perhaps for that reason, her work is considered too lightweight, too trivial to qualify as great literature. A superficial knowledge of her stories might lead one to this conclusion; any thinking reader will discover quite the contrary.
Agatha Christie wrote throughout the middle of the twentieth century, and she was as prolific as she was consistent. Private of faith, she was, like me, a High Church Anglican. Married to a Roman Catholic, her support for the Latin Mass is reputed to be the reason why Pope Paul VI allowed it in Britain. Her two greatest creations were the famous Belgian private detective, Hercule Poriot, and an aging spinster in an English village, Miss Jane Marple.
Poirot was known for his immense moustaches, demand for precision (he would send back eggs which were different sizes), and his amusement about the English. Miss Marple was an elderly lady living in St Mary Mead. She was just what you might expect her to be, except that she had forensic intuition developed to the point of genius, all from living in a small English village. Both characters solved crimes based on their knowledge of humanity, rather than convoluted clues, and both believed in good and evil as living, immediate forces.
Many of the crimes in these novels defy any characterisation other than that most unfashionable concept in the modern world: evil. In Sleeping Murder, a doctor kills his sister to stop her growing up and having a life of her own, in the process making her husband believe that he has killed his own wife. In The ABC Murders, the killer doesn’t just frame an innocent man; he makes him believe that he in fact committed the four murders—what we might today call “gaslighting.” The killer’s motive? He killed one person for his money. The others, he killed for their names, choosing an alphabetical sequence (Alice Asher, Betty Barnard, etc) to confuse the police.
The smallest child understands justice, on a basic and highly personal level. As grownups, we know that justice often fails or else succeeds imperfectly, although we hope it succeeds more often than not. In response to the evil presented in Christie’s novels, we look for something to balance the scales of justice. Our instinctive solution is revenge. Like much that passes for human experience today, revenge is instantly gratifying but in the long term leaves an echoing emptiness inside each of us. The proper solution, which will balance and indeed tip the scales, is goodness.
Nowhere to Hide
In Nemesis, Miss Marple receives messages from an old friend, now dead, asking her to solve a murder of which his estranged son is accused. On a journey through the English countryside, Miss Marple meets and talks to the murdered girl’s old headmistress who says about her, Verity “was a shining girl. Not academically bright nor was she attractive, not showily attractive. Not clever, not athletic; she was an orphan, she had no money, no home. Yet there was something in her nature.” To which Miss Marple replies, “Perhaps it was goodness.” “Do you believe in such things?” asks the headmistress, incredulously. “Oh, yes,” says Miss Marple, “yes. I believe in evil, in everlasting life, and oh yes, goodness…”
We all know men and women who radiate goodness, whose existence shines with the unconditional, unending, uncontainable love of God, like St. Stephen in front of the Sanhedrin. What of the rest of us? What if we feel like the bystanders or witnesses in a crime novel—by no means evil, but not running over with goodness either? We have but one course: practice, with friends, learning from our mistakes to keep getting better. Easy, is it not? I am reminded of the words of G. K. Chesterton: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
Perhaps this moral claim explains the lack of respect for crime fiction as great literature. There are some for whom any form of enforced morality is an affront to the modish fallacy of “my truth.” Everything for them is inherently ambiguous. While not all crime fiction has a neat solution, an attempt to solve a crime, most often a murder, is an attempt at correcting evil. In Agatha Christie’s work, the crimes cannot be blamed on “society.” We are forced to contemplate the potential for evil in everyday life, and there is nowhere to hide. If evil exists, then “difficult” does not even begin to cover it.
One of the letters addressed to Miss Marple in Nemesis quotes the prophet Amos: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” There is no ambiguity there. Instead, there is hope. We have Matthew 25 and Romans 12, among others, to guide us; we also have the deepest longings of our souls. Neuroscience has caught up with what we have known for millennia. When we choose to do something (good or bad) once, our neurotransmitters make it easier to do again and again and again. Put another way, goodness is habit forming. It is perhaps the most important habit of all.