The mystery novel is thoroughly moral in its basic conflict between good and evil.

In search of a detective story he had not already read, Old Testament scholar Henry Wheeler Robinson once reduced a railroad bookstall to chaos. Exclaimed an exasperated clerk, “Well, sir, all I can suggest is that perhaps you might try some serious literature for a change.”

The detective story is the serious-minded person’s sabbatical. It is the literature of amusement and recreation, the sickroom and the traveling public. At least three theologians—Dorothy L. Sayers, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and Ronald Knox—wrote detective stories, and this suggests there are some connections between this genre and theology.

Said Chesterton: “My taste is for the sensational novel, the detective story, the story about death, robbery and secret societies; a taste which I share in common with the bulk at least of the … population of this world.… As long as a corpse or two turns up in the second, the third, nay even the fourth or fifth chapter … I ask no more. But a novel without any death in it is still to me a novel without any life in it.”

Many reasons are advanced for the detective story’s popularity. Is it aberration or self-indulgence? Interest in people or plot? Alexander Dumas’s “egotistical piety” that says in effect “Now that’s something I don’t do / of which I’m not guilty / for which I can’t be blamed” (compare the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:11–12)? Is it relaxation from anxiety or vicarious satisfaction from seeing honesty vindicated, justice done, faith in order, moral, and social stability confirmed, and permissiveness corrected? Marvels Dorothy L. Sayers, “What a piece of work is man, that he should enjoy this kind of thing!”

First, The Crime

The ...

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