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Rachel LuMay 18, 2023
A picture of the actor Alece Guiness in a film adaptation of the Father Brown mysteries by G.K. ChestertonThe Father Brown stories show us the murder mystery in its most explicitly theological form. A 1954 film adaptation starred Alec Guinness (photo: Alamy)  

Father Brown was a great man of small stature. He could foil a criminal mastermind and then bring him to repentance before bringing him to justice. Hercule Poirot could engage murderers in genial conversation, full of empathy and without the slightest trace of fear. Roger Dowling confronted every kind of sin, degradation and personal disappointment without ever losing his faith or his compassion. He was a steadfast guide and counselor, especially to those in most need of God’s mercy.

None of these men have been canonized. Their causes will never be opened. That is because they are literary detectives, created by G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Ralph McInerny, respectively. Though we cannot look forward to conversing with them in heaven, we can learn much from these characters here below. In a unique way, they are all holy men. They are sleuths who look less on hair follicles and fingerprints, and more on the human heart. Their readers expect them to crack the case, and invariably they do. Along the way, though, they deliver more than a culprit. They also offer important insights about the destructive potential of sin and the healing power of truth.

For Chesterton, Christie and McInerny, a mystery story was the perfect device for showing how even dramatic sins spring from the fallen condition that all human beings share.

Murder mysteries tend to be light reading, and they might at first seem like a curious vehicle for teaching moral lessons. They use the morbid fascination most people have with crime to set up a mental puzzle. That hardly sounds like material for a sermon. Many classic whodunits, like the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, use exotic clues and daring criminal masterminds to enhance the puzzle aspect. Other contemporary thrillers use graphic violence and sex to keep readers enthralled. If these have a moral component, it is only in the instruction of vice.

In fact, however, the church has much to say about vice. Jesus broke bread with sinners. For Chesterton, Christie and McInerny, a mystery story was the perfect device for showing how even dramatic sins, like murder, spring from the fallen condition that all human beings share. These “holy whodunits” make delightful reading for a vacation or a lazy summer afternoon, but they offer more than entertainment.

Instead of gawking at the spectacle of extreme evil, readers are subtly encouraged to examine our own consciences, and perhaps make amends where we have caused injury, before the situation gets worse. “Men may keep a sort of level of good,” says Father Brown, “but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.”

Father Brown has a keen grasp of human psychology, which enables him to see through the whirlwind of distracting false clues.

That kind of pithy statement is characteristic of Brown, a plain priest in drab clothes whose unimposing demeanor conceals his imposing mind. Despite his diminished height, Brown stands as a straight man not only to his huge, bombastic sidekick Flambeau, but really to the entire universe. With his usual flair for the fantastic, his creator, the great English apologist, throws his detective into bizarre scenarios packed with colorful characters and implausible schemes. Through it all, the smiling little priest holds his composure, like the eye in the hurricane of a fallen world. Brown has a keen grasp of human psychology, which enables him to see through the whirlwind of distracting false clues. Again and again, Chesterton dangles the possibility of lurid resolutions involving sorcerers, pagan talismans or dark specters from beyond the grave. These proffered solutions invariably turn out to be false. Sin, as the author liked to say, is “as plain as potatoes.”

In a kind of benevolent betrayal, Chesterton usesthe natural human fascination with crime to tame its more prurient elements. He presents a world full of wonders, but sin is not among them. It is not, of course, an accident that this message is conveyed through a priest. Brown understands as well as anyone that the drama of human life lies not in sin,but rather in the conquering of it.

Written between 1910 and 1936, the Father Brown stories show us the murder mystery in its most explicitly theological form. Brown has virtually no backstory. Even his first name is, well, a mystery. This was a deliberate omission on Chesterton’s part. A detective must be a liminal figure, stepping in from outside to notice what no one else seems able to see. Brown supremely fills that bill, with his eyes on heaven and his feet firmly planted on earth. He is almost a walking incarnation of sacramental grace, showing minimal interest in bringing his criminals to justice but enormous concern for the state of their souls. At the end of The Invisible Man, when the insane melodrama has finally ended, all characters have quietly returned to their lives except for two. Father Brown “walked those snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.” Jesus Christ is always available to walk with us, no matter what we have done.

Agatha Christie was not a Roman Catholic, but her lead detective was.

Agatha Christie was not a Roman Catholic, but her lead detective was. This is perhaps not surprising. Although she herself was a high Anglican, Christie loved Catholic tradition. She was passionate about liturgy, joining many other British artists and intellectuals in 1971 to petition Pope Paul VI to permit the pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy to continue in Great Britain. (The pontiff granted her request.) It made sense for her tiny, egg-headed sleuth from Belgium to be born Catholic. A recent BBC production even presented Poirot as a priest who had left his collar behind when he fled to London at the outset of World War I. Whether or not that story rings true, it is clear that Poirot has his own kind of ministry. He applies the balm of truth to the wounds of sin.

Poirot is a caricature of himself, famous for his fastidiousness, his love of creature comforts and of course his enormous mustaches. This ridiculous guise keeps him appropriately liminal, and enables him, like Brown, to conceal his keen acumen behind a benign facade. Far more than Brown, Poirot does try to bring killers to justice, but he never moves in lockstep with Scotland Yard. Like a modern superhero, he functions as a kind of vigilante do-gooder, with his superpower located in his “little grey cells.” His grasp of the human condition is so keen that he seems able to read people’s souls simply by conversing with them. He mocks “bloodhound” detectives who focus on hair follicles and fingerprints. He himself understands that the real story is written on the mind and heart.

One of the best-selling authors of all time, Christie explored the human drama of sin and redemption with clarity and detail in her 66 full-length novels. In a typical Christie mystery, readers are presented with many suspects. Each has a unique motive to kill. This is a standard murder-mystery trope, because it creates the puzzle: Did Mrs. Peacock do it in the conservatory, or was it Professor Plum? In a holy whodunit, however, this device sets the stage perfectly for a larger morality play. One of the suspects is a killer, but all have recognizable motives with which readers can identify. Their failings are also ours. Just as Chesterton teased readers with possible paranormal solutions, Christie teases them with the possibility of psychopaths, spree killers or raging lunatics; she knows that exotic criminological unicorns are fascinating to readers. But these clues are always red herrings. Christie’s killers are ordinary people, acting on readily comprehensible motives. Our morbid curiosity is punished once again as we come to see that the mystery’s intrigue relies on the assumption that we ourselves have quite a lot in common with violent criminals.

Father Roger Dowling is the most human of these detectives, with his own troubled past.

“I do not approve of murder,” Poirot solemnly intones when he catches a killer. It is the one thing in the colorful sleuth’s life that is carefully understated. Despite his silly affectations and idiosyncrasies, Poirot’s entire life is built around the protection of innocent life. He understands how bloodshed slashes through the social fabric that keeps all human beings interconnected, destroying human communion and further entrenching the enmity and resentment that gave rise to it in the first place. Though he is not quite as readily forgiving as Brown, Poirot still wishes the best, even for murderers. Moral improvement is possible, however, only when we face up to what we are and to the mistakes we have made.

For Roger Dowling, pastor of the fictional St. Hilary’s Parish, that process of reconciliation begins with a mirror. Father Dowling is the most human of these detectives, with his own troubled past. Fox River, Ill., is also the least glamorous of the three settings. Ralph McInerny, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, wrote the Father Dowling mysteries from 1977 through the 2000s, and the Midwestern town he selected seems like a vision of Rust Belt decline. These books have more than a dash of the noir, with seedy nightclubs, drug lords, corrupt cops and periodic cameos from a two-bit private eye with a severe drinking problem. The stories are marked by a constant sense of things failing or fading.

This applies even to Dowling, who is by no means a superhero. Once a rising star in the seminary, he was derailed by alcoholism and ended up in a “moribund, lonely outpost of one of the most populous archdioceses in Christendom.” Fox River is a kind of purgatory, gray and gritty, while St. Hilary’s is most noteworthy for the senior center that was created on the premises of a now-closed parochial school. The elderly visitors feature regularly in the Dowling mysteries, displaying a wide range of vices large and small. This is sometimes poignant and often amusing; Father Dowling spends much of his time settling small spats and occasionally officiating at weddings between octogenarians. The notes of humor cannot obscure the larger message: Everyone in these books is a step away from the grave.

This too is part of the human condition. McInerny’s prose does not dazzle like Chesterton’s, and there are no aristocratic mansions or exotic foreign climates, as in Christie’s novels. Dowling is a sleuth only secondarily; first and foremost, he is a pastor. But he is, for that reason, the perfect person to show how God’s grace can work in the everyday lives of sinners. His priestly vocation and intellect still set him apart, but McInerny’s particular genius lay in the realization that a priest-detective does not really need tangled melodramas to become a sleuth. Confronting sin is just his normal day at the office.

Sadly, sin is part of everyone’s day at the office, though we may not always confront it as we should. A holy whodunit offers readers hope and reassurance, reminding us that grace is always available to us and that forgiveness is real. But it should also cause some discomfort,as readers turn the magnifying glass inward and consider how often they too have yielded to temptation.

A good sleuth takes up the weapon of truth in order to deliver us from evil. We should read these stories with pleasure and apply their lessons with zeal.

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