I don't find that terribly surprising, even less surprising that Christians - pacifist or not - would be attracted to crime fiction, and I don't mean the "cozies," a la Murder, She Wrote (nothing wrong with cozies, mind you), that play down the grittiest and darkest human motivations and behaviors.
It's just passing Easter, and our Christian story is not about bunnies and eggs, but about political intrigue, conspiracy, human weakness, and finally the tortuous execution of an innocent man. There is a plot twist at the end.
But it might be counter-intuitive for non-Christians who cling to a caricature of Christians as sheltered, petit bourgeois prudes who compulsively seek after respectability.
I read somewhere that Stanley Hauerwas, a very well-known Christian pacifist, is also a fan of "realistic" crime fiction. In my short exchange with my Facebook friend, I admitted that I hadn't given a great deal of thought to my own affinity for it - whether novels, television series, or films. So by blogging about it, I can explore this topic in a little more depth, and maybe even invite other devotees to join the conversation.
I'm not fussy about the genre. I love P. D. James, Elmore Leonard, Val McDermid, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Scott Turow, Denise Mina, Karin Slaughter, James Lee Burke, the series The Wire, films like Witness and Michael Clayton, and a whole list of other stuff. I like a good police procedural, a detective story, a legal thriller, a first-person criminal protagonist, hard noir, no matter, as long as it is well-written.
But back to the question, why? And moreover, as someone who has been won over to the foolishness of First Corinthians, why degradation, crime... murder!?
Asked a similar question, Christian crime novelist James Scott Bell replied, using a Raymond Chandler quote: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is not tarnished or afraid."
It's a snappy quote, a little heavy on the machismo as an explanation, but it speaks to a moral dimension of Christianity - living in a fallen world without being consumed by it. But I have to admit I like my characters pretty damn tarnished and afraid. I know I am, tarnished and afraid, so perhaps I need them brought low enough for my own imagination to reach.
While the Gospels have a happy ending, happy endings in a juicy noir story are an oxymoron; and in good crime fiction generally - speaking for myself - happy endings need to be satisfying in certain local resolution only, with all the worldly conflict and ambiguity intact.
What a good crime story can't avoid, in my opinion, is the tension between cultural formation and so-called free will. This inevitably implies moral engagement - even if the author is wise enough and deft enough to avoid writing editorials - and it inevitably criticizes the structures and norms of societies. A sociobiologist would make a pretty shitty crime fiction author.
There are big philosophical questions raised in a good crime story, beginning with questions about law and about crime itself. Every good tale has conflict, or we might as well be reading a recipe for lemon oatmeal cookies. Moral conflict, at the end of the day, is the only kind that matters.
Even formulaic stories - be they P. D. James with her cast of suspects that all have good motives, or LA noir like Chinatown, LA Confidential, or the Easy Rawlins series - have class, race, and political corruption as part of the setting. I actually like formulae, in the same way that I enjoy sonnets. The rules paradoxically give the writer more freedom to concentrate on content. On that count, long live the cozies!
My Facebook friend suggested the question of intent as one of the attractants of crime fiction; and that brought Elizabeth Anscombe to mind - the Catholic philosopher who was a student and then protege of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Her defining work was a monograph entitled Intention.
Interesting that intent is essential in determinations of culpability in criminal law, and that in the real world it becomes slippery precisely because the individual in the dock for a crime can never be divorced from his or her history, family, upbringing, emergencies, and dependencies; and that intent itself can disappear into the psyche, dissolving into mirror neurons and object-relations and the mystery of consciousness in the same way that matter and energy as we think we experience them can dissolve into the simultaneity of wave and particle.
There is more than a superficial reason to call a genre mystery.
Intention appears in so many guises. I am walking to the market intentionally. Tomorrow, I intend to cook what I buy there. My intention with the cooking is to prepare a meal for the soup kitchen. Some day, I intend to buy a new stove.
She didn't intend to kill him.
She intended to kill him, but only to prevent him killing her.
He intended to rob the liquor store, but he had no idea the owner had a gun.
Intent and motive inevitably go together; and, of course, motives return us to that dark place where we may not know ourselves what moves us, even if the law has to circumscribe motive and intent with sterile language to make it manageable enough to apply the laws that maintain order - and what is that order? Is it ordered order, or are even its administrators the captives of that order?
Sartre, an atheist, wrote of Dostoevsky, an Augustinian Christian, that the latter's work suggests that in the absence of God, anything at all is permitted. Echoes of Neitzsche. Echoes of Hannibal Lecter.
Crime fiction goes there. Let's face it, it is very difficult to find crime fiction that does not involve murder. It is so predictable - and so unsatisfying without murder - that we might ought to call it murder-fiction.
It's been around for a minute. Right after the Fall in Genesis, we jump straight to fratricide, no?
What is it about murder that would attract a Christian audience? Pacifists, at that!
One thing murder does, in a culture that at least hears "Thou shalt not kill" somewhere in its past, is it manifests the motive - love, lust, greed, jealousy, wrath, concupiscence - in the most unambiguous and irreversible way - "wrongful death." When a life is extinguished, the clock doesn't get turned back.
This is where the various schools of ethics are brought together to battle it out - deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics are all called onto the field... or should I say, the crime scene. Was it a failure of the rules, a failure to follow the rules, or an outcome that makes it wrong? Was it wrong? What has the character of the killer to do with it, and how was that character formed?
Who better to struggle with these questions than the person investigating... or perhaps a survivor... or even the perpetrator?
Sandrine Berges, at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, wrote a very good paper that makes a credible case that the hardboiled detective represents an Aristotelian moralist - albeit often quite damaged. As a proponent of virtue ethics as explained by Alasdair MacIntyre and others, I have to agree. In the best of the genre, the other approaches are blurred, and nothing emerges like the character of the character. Jane Haddam's Gregor Demarkian, Ian Rankin's John Rebus and Siobhan Clark, Karin Slaughter's Sara Linton, Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, these are memorable because we know they are damaged, but we know we can count on them - there is still something solid at their core, something that resembles good will and good character - the latter often not synonymous with the rules or the outcomes.
Every reader survives, and therein may be another key to the attraction. Not merely our evasion of the inevitable for the time being, but that we can stand back half a step from the horror and irreversibility; that we can adopt the rationalist pose as a kind of guardrail between us and the abyss represented by the often gruesome corpse - an abyss that will swallow us all up in the breathtaking amplitude of time.
The great themes of literature - love, sex, death, and power - can and do play a part in good crime fiction, often all four together. Oh, the plots! They're the best. While there are plenty of pulp writers who rip off plot-lines and reuse them, the reservoir of plots for the really good writers is apparently inexhaustible. Life's plots certainly are. And because good writing is not limited by sexual dimorphism, this is a genre where there are a lot of really good women writers, whether they are writing men or women as protagonists and perpetrators.
Crime fiction requires a writer to go beyond the instrumental. If the relations don't make sense, the story comes across as being made of cardboard. Our culture's socialization gives the advantage, then, to women in many respects. Want to visit the suburbs and still find the heart of darkness? Check out Laura Lippman. Need some heart-stopping brutality? Karin Slaughter will shred and barbecue corpses, subject her characters to torture and rape, and blow up a well-beloved protagonist right in front of your eyes in half a heartbeat. Are you into the psychology of motives? Take a ride with Denise Mina for Tartan noir that happens as much in the heads of the characters as on the streets.
Crime fiction is no boys' club. Crime fiction is about our fears, and women learn early to be less afraid to admit fear than men. I've long contended that hyper-masculinity is compensation for the fear of fear, that it is rooted in some deep sexual terror. Men talk about violence, but women are more often its victims.
Both like to read about it, but not necessarily for its own sake. Some will say it is not realistic, and that this genre will predispose us to see dangers that are far less ubiquitous than these representations suggest. It might make us paranoid. These stories might scare children.
When I was a kid, I loved to be scared by stories, and look how screwed up I am! (-:
Cabot Cove, Maine, the setting for Murder, She Wrote, has a murder rate that rivals Baghdad. Who'd've known?
Actually, good crime fiction can describe the real world that we don't want to see, not that isn't out there. The series, The Wire, where the moral differences between cops and criminals are often difficult to discern, shows a fallen city where a multi-factional civil war had broken out. It should be mandatory viewing for Christians, because it shows the diseased social body that is hidden beneath the veneer of self-delusion and respectability. It is the 20th and 21st Centuries writ small.
Crime fiction gives us a post-lapsarian world, temptations and all, and maybe, without trying, poses hard questions to Christians.
I'm not sure. These are just a few thoughts. Any others?