Murder, manners and mystery

Murder, manners and mystery: reflections on faith in contemporary dectective fiction

Peter C. Erb
SCM Press, 2007, Pbk., 150p., £14.99, ISBN 9780334041078

I have never been a prolific reader of detective fiction, but when I picked up a P.D. James from the bookshelf of a relative I was visiting, I enjoyed her literary style and her approach to story telling and sensed her interest in human beings and what brings them to the point of committing extreme acts of violence and murder. Here was no mechanistic plotting designed only to fascinate, dazzle or intrigue the reader, but a concern for human and even moral values. I was by no means surprised when I learnt of her Christian faith. So I was intereested to read Peter Erb’s reflections on the work of James and other contemporary crime writers.

Murder, Manners, and Mystery is really a collection of essays, developed from the John Albert Hall lectures delivered by the author at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria in October 2004. In the introduction the author considers how the world has changed since the time of John Albert Hall – the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and explains how he came to choose the subject for his lectures, having begun to notice a growing use of Christian themes in crime fiction during the mid-1980s. While some of this was anti-Christian in nature, he also found contemporary writers who took a different approach, reflecting a serious search for transcendence and meaning in human life.

Each of the subsequent chapters focuses on a different theme, drawing on the works of a number of writers both secular and Christian. The first looks at the idea of mystery – can detective fiction be more than just the solving of a puzzle and point to the mystery of faith? P.D. James’ approach in Devices and Desires and A Taste for Death is contrasted with Colin Dexter’s in Death is now my Neighbour. The second chapter considers the nature of man – original sin and the fall, drawing on P.D. James’ Original Sin and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The third explores the problem of justice and the ability of the murderer to create the illusion of innocence through a performance of ‘good manners’. This chapter focuses on James’ A Certain Justice and Ian Pears’ An Instance of the Finger Post.

The final chapter examines the search for resolution, using examples from James’ Death in Holy Orders and Dexter’s The Remorseful Day. Can justice be more than retribution? What satisfaction can be made for the loss of human life? What hope of release can there be for the murderer?

This slim volume is not a light read, but it provides fascinating insights into the work of contemporary writers, that will interest Christians concerned to engage with contemporary society, thought and culture. Peter Erb takes a scholarly approach to the subject. The book is extensively annotated and a bibliography is included for those wishing to explore further.

Contributed by: Mary E. Wood, BA, MScInfStud, who works as an Information Researcher and Content Developer for the Chartered Management Institute and manages the CLIS website and e-newsletter.