Three Christian Mystery Writers
Many Christian writers work in the mystery genre, and many more
Christians read and enjoy mystery stories. Christians are attracted
to mystery stories because of their themes of sin and redemption, the
struggle between good and evil, and the larger-than-life figure of the
detective who reveals sin and brings justice and healing.
Three well-known British mystery writers who also have reputations
as Christian apologists include G. K. Chesterton, creator of the
highly successful Father Brown series of short stories in the early
1900s; Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote the popular Lord Peter
Wimsey mysteries in the 1930s; and P. D. James, contemporary
author of twelve books featuring Scotland Yard detective and poet
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
A prolific English critic and author of verse, essays, novels and short
stories, G. K. Chesterton was born in London. He didnâ€™t learn
to read until he was over eight, and one of his teachers told him, â
€œIf we opened your head, we should not find brain but only a lump
of white fat.â€�
Just before the turn of the century, Chesterton experienced a crisis of
skepticism and depression. His marriage in 1901 to Frances Blogg
helped pull him out of it.
Chesterton introduced his character Father Brown in the story, â
€œThe Blue Cross,â€� which was published in the Storyteller in
1910. He became more widely known with the publication of two
collections of short stories, The Innocence of Father Brown in
1911 and The Wisdom of Father Brown in 1914.
According to biographer Elvis Rowan, Father Brown was a sort of
early Columbo, â€œgiving the appearance of being a harmless,
bumbling, absent-minded fellow, but who always notices the detail
that enables him to solve the case.â€�
In his Autobiography, Chesterton explained his trademark character
this way: â€œHis commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with
his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of
course I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round
and expressionless, his manners clumsy, and so on.â€�
The Father Brown stories are packed with witty observations about
society. Father Brown brings clarity from confusion with a magicianâ
€™s dexterity, and Chesterton uses clear, precise words despite the
florid prose style of the day.
In 1922, Chesterton converted to Catholicism and wrote several
theologically oriented works, including lives of Francis of Assisi and
Thomas Aquinas. He described his conversion in a collection of
essays called The Thing. He also wrote literary criticism of Robert
Browning and Charles Dickens.
He continued writing stories almost until his death, with The
Incredulity of Father Brown in 1926, The Secret of Father
Brown in 1927 and The Scandal of Father Brown in 1935.
Chesterton was interested in politics, and was quick to support the
underdog. He believed in what he called Distributivism,
redistributing the land so everyone had a cottage and a plot of
ground to grow his own food and be self-sufficient. Though the
practicality of the theory was questioned, it appeals to many who
take a more literal approach to the social teachings of scripture.
A master of aphorisms, Chesterton wrote such witty and perceptive
comments as, â€œThe Christian ideal has not been tried and found
wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.â€� And â
€œThe Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our
enemies, probably because they are generally the same people.â€�
He obviously had more than fat in his head.
The Father Brown stories are fascinating puzzles with complex plots
turning on a single truth, though with limited depth of character.
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
Dorothy L. Sayers, the daughter of an English clergyman, was a
1915 graduate of Oxford. She worked as an advertising
copywriter, helping set the style of advertising to the present day.
In 1923, as a single woman of thirty, she published her first novel,
Whose Body, introducing the sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey, a
prime example of the literary figure who plays the fool to mask his
brilliance, strength and giftedness, would go on to be the hero of
fourteen volumes of novels and short stories, satisfying his creatorâ
€™s need for a dashing
and wealthy man in her life.
Sayers later describes Wimsey: â€œMy impression is that I was
thinking about writing a detective story and that he walked in,
complete with spats, and applied in an airy donâ€™t-care-if-I-get-it
way for the job of hero. . . . Lord Peterâ€™s large income . . . was
a different matter. I deliberately gave him that. After all, it cost me
nothing, and at the time I was particularly hard up, and it gave me
pleasure to spend his fortune for him.â€�*
In 1926, Sayers married Arthur Fleming, a journalist twelve years
older than she was. Fleming had been gassed and shellshocked in
World War I. After two years of marriage, his health began to
deteriorate, and soon he was no longer able to work. Sayers
supported them both with her increasing royalties.
A traditional Anglican with an emphasis on doctrine, she wrote a
play, The Zeal of Thy House, for the Canterbury Festival. She
wrote six more plays, concluding with The Emperor Constantine in
1951. Her Man Born to be King, written for the BBC, created
controversy by having Christâ€™s voice speaking in modern
English. Her audience expected to hear Christ speaking in the Thees
and Thous of King James English.
Sayers translated Danteâ€™s Divine Comedy from the Italian and
Song of Roland from old French. She wrote long hours, and died
unexpectedly of heart failure in December 1957. She lived out her
â€œThe only Christian work is good work, well done.â€�
A woman of strong convictions, Sayers once wrote about sloth, â
€œIn the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair,
the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know
nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds
purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there
is nothing for which it will die.â€�
Sayers writes in a light and breezy style, more modern than that of
Chesterton. Her characters are stylish and sympathetic, and they
become deeper as the series progresses. The longer novel form
allows her the leisure to explore even commonplace events with wit
and detail. Through the tangled plots of her stories, she opens the
door to the fascinating period of English history between the world
wars and to the fascinating working of a first-rate detectiveâ€™s
*James Brabazon, Dorothy L. Sayers, A Biography (New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1981), 120.
|Ian Carmichael as
Lord Peter Wimsey
Roy Marsden as
P. D. James (1920- )
P. D. James was born in Oxford, the oldest daughter of an Inland
Revenue (income tax) official. She spent thirty years in various
branches of the British Civil Service, retiring in 1979 to become a
full-time writer. She is the author of eleven novels, many of which
have been filmed and broadcast on television.
Like Sayers, James started writing at a difficult time in her life. Her
husband was ill and she was working, taking evening classes and
raising children. Unlike Sayers, James wrote slowly and carefully,
taking a more philosophical approach to fiction.
She raises the question that attracted her to write mysteries this way:
â€œWhat makes someone who is essentially good, who is
educated, who is law-abiding--someone who should be able to
understand his motives and perhaps have more insight into himself
and others than most people do--what makes him cross that
invisible line that divides the murderer from the rest of us?â€�
In an interview by Jennifer Reese, James said that she loves â€œthe
structure in the novel. . . . I love the ideal of bringing order out of
disorder, which is what the mystery is about. I like the way in which
it affirms the sanctity of human life and exorcises irrational guilt."
Ralph C. Wood of Baylor University makes the case for P. D.
James as a Christian novelist. â€œHer fiction has far profounder
moral and religious import, for example, than anything to be found in
the Peter Wimsey books of Sayers. Her careful attention to
character portrayal, for instance, reveals a deeply incarnational
conviction that human life must not be flattened into caricatures and
stereotypes. It must be honored, instead, in all of its rich
particularity and vexing ambiguity.â€�
Adam Dalgliesh, Jamesâ€™s poet-detective, â€œis her hero, but
not her mouthpiece.â€� The unbelieving son of a clergyman, he
considers his occupation in Devices and Designs,
Perhaps this was part of the attraction of his job, that the process of detection
dignified the individual death, even the death of the least attractive, the most
unworthy, mirroring in its excessive interest in clues and motives a manâ€™s
perennial fascination with the mystery of his morality, providing, too, a comforting
illusion of a moral universe in which innocence could be avenged, right vindicated,
order restored. But nothing was restored, certainly not life, and the only justice
vindicated was the uncertain justice of men.
Jamesâ€™s plots are intricate, her settings artistically rendered.
According to Wood, James â€œhas a Dickensian reverence for
particular places. . . . Thus we are told that Dalgliesh â€˜could learn
more about his witness from an unobtrusive scrutiny of his rooms
than from a dozen direct questions. Books, pictures, the
arrangement of artifacts sometimes provided more revealing
testimony than words.â€™â€�
A careful craftsman, James believes â€œthat a writer with Christian
convictions can never make faith suffice for art.â€� But while
Sayers caused a stir by having Jesus speak in modern English,
James champions the use of the King James Bible and Thomas
Cranmerâ€™s Book of Common Prayer in the liturgy of the
Church of England. In her fragmentary autobiography, Time To Be
in Earnest, she calls them "two of the nationâ€™s seminal books.
If you want to destroy a countryâ€™s tradition and soften it up for a
culture you personally find more to your liking, there is no better
way to begin than by an attack on its language and literature."**
Writing about the setting of her Death in Holy Orders, Wood
describes the connection she makes between language and the
mysteries of faith as follows:
There is no Christianity without strange language and difficult doctrines and
unworldly practices. Absent such signs of its transcendent uniqueness, Christian
faith becomes little more than moral uplift. The very existence of St. Anselmâ€™s
[the seminary in which the book is set], though small and precarious and doomed
soon to die, makes its own powerful witness. Its resident priests and ordinands are
surely not exemplars of unalloyed virtue; indeed, they all have reason for committing
the murders. James makes it ever so clear that sin can infect the faithful even more
fatally than the believing. Yet this handful of churchmen are habituated to a life of
devotion and worship and communal living that gives them a depth of character that
is lacking in their secular counterparts, most of whom live in solitary sufficiency.
A resident of London, James has received numerous honors,
including being made a Life Peer (Baroness James of Holland Park)
in 1991. She has served as a magistrate, is a governor of the BBC,
and chair of the Literature Advisory Panel of the Arts Council of
England and of the British Council. She has received major prizes
for crime writing in Great Britain, America, Italy and Scandinavia.
In 1999 she received the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster
Award for long-term achievement.
In her author statement on the British Council website, she explains,
All fiction is an attempt to create order out of disorder and to make sense of personal
experience. But the classical detective story does this within its own established
conventions; a central mystery which is usually but not necessarily a murder, a closed
circle of suspects, a detective, either professional or amateur, who comes in like an
avenging deity to solve the crime, and a final solution which the reader would be able
to arrive at himself by logical deduction from the clues. This apparent formula
writing is capable of accommodating a remarkable variety of books and talents.
Within the formal constraints of the detective novel I try to say something true about
men and women under the stress of the ultimate crime and about the society in which
Of the three writers Iâ€™ve considered, James is my favorite. Her
complex and distinctive characters and plots reward frequent
rereading, and her craftsmanship is an example for any writer. But
all three writers are good reads, well worth the time and attention
their work demands. Their insights into human nature shed light on
ourselves and those around us. Their precise and colorful
renderings of places, times, lifestyles different from our own broaden
our vision the way foreign travel can, without the cost. And their
deep thoughts on the human condition, against the bold extremes of
life and death, prompt us to greater awareness of the big mysteries
**P. D. James, Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 143.