Last semester I had the privilege to teach a detective fiction course for the first time. Spending sixteen weeks immersed in these delightfully creative stories alongside insightful, enthusiastic students was surely one of the highlights of my year. It’s hard to beat a syllabus that includes the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, and Arthur Conan Doyle. The iconic sleuths brought to life by these authors are legendary: C. Auguste Dupin, Lord Peter Wimsey, Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, and more. Add in the genre’s impressive range of fascinating plots, motives, victims, settings, and criminals, and it’s no surprise that mystery novels regularly appear on bestseller lists.1
But beyond being just plain fun, detective fiction offers a surprising window into the human condition, our internal and external experiences, our desires, our potential, and our downfalls. These stories are certainly not high art (although Sayers comes close), but as popular fiction often does, they foreground our collective values and cultural priorities, reflect civic norms, and reinforce communal expectations. These intriguing stories provided more than enough fodder for substantive discussions and the kind of self-examination one wants from a humanities course.
For those with eyes to see, detective fiction reveals who we are as human beings and who we should be, both individually and collectively. In particular, I found myself most captivated by the following three convictions, which reside at the heart of all detective stories, no matter the twists and turns they take:
- The truth is knowable.
The linchpin of all detective fiction is that the human mind at work on a given problem can figure out a solution. Without this premise there could be no story. Watson would have no reason to chronicle Sherlock’s adventures; desperate clients would have no cause to mount the stairs of 221B Baker Street. And yet they do, because the fictional detective is expected to bring closure to vexed questions. Whatever robbery or murder to be investigated, readers, too, believe that competent detectives will produce a reliable and verifiable solution, one that uncovers the actual truth of the matter. It would be a sad detective story indeed that failed to unravel the mystery that motivated its telling. Imagine how unsatisfying it would be to watch TV’s Monk without Adrien’s trademark “Here’s what happened” or a Columbo without the detective’s off-hand “Just one more thing.”
That’s not to say discovering the truth is easy. Fictional detectives stand out precisely because of their exceptional investigative talents: they have honed their powers of observation, are well-studied in a broad array of disciplines, and can skillfully engage in logical reasoning.2 Matching wits with these figures is part of the fun of such reading. Ellery Queen makes explicit this element of detective fiction with his noteworthy “challenge to the reader,” where he pauses the story to notify readers that they have all the relevant facts to solve the case.3 Importantly, regardless of how extraordinary a fictional detective is, he or she absolutely must make their conclusions available for scrutiny by the other characters as well as for the reader. Truth, on these terms, is no esoteric thing, but is objective, public, and accessible to the human mind.
- We have an obligation to discover the truth.
Fictional detectives come in all stripes, from all backgrounds, with a great variety of expertise and motivations. But, whether out of a general concern for justice or a personal connection to the victim, all of them are compelled to identify the criminal, to decipher what motivated him or her, and to determine how the crime was committed. These are the ethical imperatives that move the story along as well as the conditions that make for a satisfying ending. Amateur sleuths like Chesterton’s Father Brown in particular are in no way motivated by money. Even Sherlock Holmes is paid only sporadically. Perhaps these characters are sometimes driven by the puzzle itself, finding the challenge too tantalizing to pass up, but even still, concerns for justice are never far behind. Whatever responsibility these detectives feel, it’s clear that it goes beyond professional obligations. And that’s true even for private investigators like Chandler’s Continental Op and professional police officers like those of McBain’s 87th Precinct. They may get some financial remuneration, but the extent to which these figures expend themselves to bring justice usually goes well beyond everyday work demands.
What kind of world would this be if crimes went undetected and uninvestigated? And so, for detective fiction, it is incumbent on the community, but especially on the detective, to pursue a case to its end. That doesn’t mean detective fiction presents an ideal world, far from it. In instances like Ian Rankin’s stories, solving a given case often reveals yet more injustice and disorder. But in whatever imaginary world put forth, these fictional detectives operate under a moral code, even if it’s an idiosyncratic one that doesn’t track well with the legal system. They are redemptive figures in that way, setting out to make things right.
- Investigating the truth involves both head and heart.
Despite the enduring caricature of the detective as a thinking machine, well parodied by Jacques Futrelle’s Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, the decided majority of fictional sleuths rely heavily on reason andemotional intelligence to solve their cases. A closer look at Sherlock Holmes reveals that even he usually relies on something like instinct and intuition in his investigations. He also prized imagination and considered it crucial to good detective work, lamenting in the case of Inspector Gregory that the officer’s lack of imagination kept him from reaching his full potential.4
Holmes’s imagination enabled him to resist obvious (and potentially wrong) conclusions and instead patiently consider all the evidence to discover their many potential relationships and eventually determine the best fit.5 So, too, with the intimate knowledge that comes from experience, such as that which gives Christie’s Miss Marple her edge. This darling and unassuming arm-chair detective credits her insights to the full life she has lived, despite its parochial limitations: “Human nature,” she asserts in “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter,” “is much the same everywhere, and, of course, one has opportunities of observing it at closer quarters in a village.”6 This psychological, and even theological, insight may not be empirically measurable, but as Marple’s successful track record demonstrates, it nonetheless can help us uncover the truth.
The truth is knowable. We have an obligation to discover it. And doing so involves both head and heart. These convictions do not exhaust the detective fiction genre, but they illuminate important aspects of the human condition, concerns I daresay that also reside at the heart of our call as Christian educators. We, too, believe that human beings inhabit a shared reality external to ourselves wherein truth is objective and accessible through our epistemic faculties, including our senses, our reason, and our emotions—i.e., our head and heart.
James Sire in his classic handbook on Christian worldview, The Universe Next Door, explains that this intelligibility of the world and the reliability of our sensemaking apparatus stem from God as creator and our state as creatures made in his image. Pointing to John 1, Sire emphasizes that it is out of God’s rationality that we find a universe defined by “structure, order and meaning.”7 Our investigation of this world also has a moral mandate, much like that of detective fiction. Christians, including Christian teachers, are called to love the Lord with all our mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength (Luke 10:27). As image bearers, we are charged with stewardship of this world (Genesis 1:28 & 2:15). Christian education at its best encourages study of our world to fulfill this role.
Of course, the resonances between detective fiction and Christian education go only so far. The extremes of detective fiction can inculcate pride and an overreliance on human ingenuity. Even so, Christian educators can find in detective fiction a powerful opportunity to reconsider and reinvigorate our own task of investigating and stewarding our world and training students to do likewise.
- Deane Mansfield-Kelley and Lois A. Marchino, eds., The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction (New York: Pearson, 2005), 1. Mansfield-Kelley and Marchino explain that at the time of their writing it was common for detective novels to claim three or four of the top ten slots on The New York Times list.
- See “Sherlock Holmes as Epistemologist” in Marybeth and David Baggett, Telling Tales (Houston: Moral Apologetics Press, 2021) for further discussion of this point as it relates to Holmes in particular.
- Mansfield-Kelley and Marchino, 151.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze,” The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. 1 (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003), 403.
- Marybeth and David Baggett, 21.
- Agatha Christie, “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter,” The 13 Problems (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 83
- James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 3rd ed., (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 30.