The Purest Literature

In Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Whimsey defends a woman accused of murder. In an ironical move, Sayers makes this woman a detective novelist which, oddly, works to her favor as Whimsey claims that this counterintuitively renders her unlikely to have committed the crime of which she is accused:

“She writes detective stories and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”

Strong Poison, Chapter XII

One might expect a detective writer to be capable of the perfect crime; instead, it appears that detective novelists are more attuned to the underlying moral order of society. Rather than seeking to undermine this order, such writers appear to test it, critique it, and explore it for the sake of upholding it. As Peter Whimsey suggests, detective stories (in their true form) rely upon the triumph of order over disorder, creation over chaos, and truth over deception. To write detective stories is to leap headlong into the moral order, trusting that it is, indeed, a reality that can and will provide not only a plot but a resolution.

It may be that these stories are “pure” because they reveal the undoubtable truth of original sin, which G.K. Chesterton considered “the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved.”

Orthodoxy, Chapter 2

One might think that I consider detective stories to be sentimental pictures of wholly-virtuous (or, perhaps, holy-virtuous) characters saving society from the wholly-corrupt. This is far from the case. I would argue instead that what makes detective stories “the purest literature we have” is that they are the most accurate to the state of human society, in which good triumphs over evil not because but in spite of us. It may be that these stories are “pure” because they reveal the undoubtable truth of original sin, which G.K. Chesterton (who wrote his fair share of detective stories) considered “the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved” (Orthodoxy, Ch. 2). Indeed, secular or sacred, detective fiction cuts to the core of human hearts and finds more wrong than can be put right, even in the seemingly best men and women. Despite this, the plot of detective stories remains always a movement—however stilted—toward truth, order, and justice, suggesting that although original sin is fundamental to these stories, so, too, is the desire for righteousness.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying Unforgotten, a PBS Masterpiece Mystery series with what some hail as a “compassionate view toward crime.” It is a nuanced show, in which criminals are afforded human dignity because, as their wrongs become more and more apparent, so, too, do the sins of the “innocent.” As in Broadchurch, another British mystery series, it becomes rapidly clear that no one is truly innocent. Even those working to restore order to society are susceptible to institutional injustice, broken relationships, and personal addictions. In both shows, viewers encounter suspects who have done great good in their communities despite dark secrets, as well as non-suspects who, despite being innocent by law, are deeply flawed individuals. The initial discovery of a crime not only launches investigation into its perpetration but unravels the sinful lives of all involved; nothing remains hidden. In this, detective stories, if not “pure” in the sense of being clear and clean, are certainly “purifying” in that they unearth deception and purge degeneration. In Sayers’ novels, as in Broadchurch, and Unforgotten, even the heroes are not beacons of light and righteousness but, simply, humans pursuing truth in spite of broken systems and personal shortcomings.

As I watched these shows in particular, the following verse came to mind:

“They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.”

Psalm 14:3, ESV

No one is innocent.

That, I think is the “compassionate”—if convicting— message of Unforgotten and Broadchurch. If no one innocent, our approach to crime has to be “there but by grace are we,” even as order is sought and earthly justice administered. And yet, in the midst of this mess of culpability, in which nobody is fit to cast the first stone, good is accomplished; order is restored (or, at least, propped up as best it can be in a fallen world) and justice is, to a certain extent, served.

The genius and, indeed, believability of stories like Broadchurch and Unforgotten, perhaps lies in the fact that both the convicted and the acquitted are guilty—just not of the same things. The man convicted of fraud is guilty, but so is the free man who lies to his wife, just as the woman arrested for maltreatment is guilty, as well as the detective who neglects her family. None is righteous and yet, light is discovered through darkness and allowed to have its way with all involved, whether criminal, officer, or civilian. In reminding us that “virtue is always triumphant,” detective stories also reveal that the triumph of virtue is painful; it drags all that we try to hide into the severe light of truth, the purgatorial flame of divine justice.

Virtue triumphs, but virtue is a wrecking ball. It destroys the façades we build over our fundamental failings. It wrecks the selves we struggle to sustain and forces us to decide: will we be unmade and remade in the image of the Righteous One or will we, too, fall deeper into depravity. Virtue Triumphant does not distinguish between the villain or the protagonist, the felon or the officer. One may escape jail, but none escape judgement.

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is none who does good.

The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.”

Psalm 14:1-2, ESV

The passage preceding Psalm 14:3 provides necessary context, for it proclaims the cause for this consequence; the reason that no one does good is because no one naturally understands that to seek after God above all is the highest good. Even seemingly well-intentioned people are seeking something lesser and, even if that is justice or order or even truth, these apart from God cannot satisfy our hearts nor safeguard our communities. It is a sobering reminder, but this is what renders detective stories, if not the purest, perhaps the most purifying literature.

In detective stories, we are confronted with all that is ugly in ourselves and find that what we thought was good isn’t immune to corruption. And yet, it is when we recognize that none are righteous—when we acknowledge that we are all guilty—that we begin to gain the understanding of the Psalmist. It is then that we understand enough to throw ourselves into pursuit of the goodness and truth that exist only by the grace of the One who wields justice according to the truest judgement, who creates and maintains order against all human odds, and whose goodness remains pure in the face our our deepest impurity.

“Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the LORD is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.”

Isaiah 30:18-19, ESV

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