15 March 2010

CCL conference paper abstract

Last weekend I attended a CCL Conference on Christianity and Detective Fiction. Here's the abstract of my paper. I'll post a full report soon.

Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible?
Charles Williams’s War in Heaven as a Generic Case Study

War in Heaven begins with this glorious opening sentence: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” After this fantastic opening, Williams romps into a bizarre tale of the Holy Grail, black magic, and demon possession. However, from such an auspicious opening to a murder mystery, Williams goes on to overturn most of the standard procedures of that genre. He strays so far from convention, in fact, that War in Heaven is either a really bad murder mystery—or a really good something else.
In this paper, I intend to discuss the ways in which Williams departs from the rules that traditionally govern the mystery, show how he affirms certain essential premises, and illuminate his ultimate purpose. This purpose is quite different from the raison d’être of the mystery story proper, and leads into a discussion of how, and to what extent, a mystery can incorporate Christian themes.

An online interlocutor of mine, after reading War in Heaven, complained that “you begin the book with that perfect, fantastic opening sentence, expect this to be a page-turning murder mystery, and then it turns out to be a metaphysical drama and the poor murdered guy isn’t really all that important.” Her frustration is apt, and can be subdivided into three cogent arguments against the success of this book as a murder mystery. First, the opening leads the reader into generic expectations which are overturned by subsequent developments. Second, the characters are not developed as reader of fiction expect. Third, both plot and characters are subordinated to philosophical concerns.

While this reader’s concerns are both recurrent and justifiable, they illuminate important aspects of Williams’ purpose in rewriting the mystery’s standard operating procedure. First, the plot fails to meet the expectations set up in the opening. Surprising features include a very early (and disbelieved) confession by the murderer, the introduction of an important plot that has (apparently) nothing to do with the murder, and the fact that the real mystery to solve is not ‘Who murdered this victim?’ nor even Why or How he was killed.

Second, Williams’s characters are not developed as are those in standard fiction; but does Williams suffer from “a total inability to write credible dialogue; a total lack of interest in the depicting and development of character” (Barclay 99)? Williams’s theological purpose led him to depict characters, in Platonic terms, as copies of absolute spiritual realities. In other words, he sacrificed the psychological and emotional complexities of characters to the eternal realities they represent.

This leads to Williams’s ultimate purpose in War in Heaven. The final accusation he faces is that this book is “too intellectual.” I will approach this charge by discussing his theology and mysticism, especially as they relate to his ideas governing human relationships and interaction with the Divine. In the end, I hope to show that he wrote this book as a metaphysical thriller to communicate doctrine, not (primarily) as a mystery to entertain.

Which leads me to question the amount of philosophy or theology a mystery is capable of supporting. In the final analysis, War in Heaven is not a mystery primarily because it is designed to, if you like, ‘preach’; does it logically follow that pure mysteries cannot preach or teach at all? Hillary Waugh wrote: “The mystery novel does not contain the equipment to carry messages. It is too frail a box to hold the human spirit” (Waugh ‘Mystery vs. Novel’ 75). Yet many Christian mystery writers do communicate messages. Indeed, that is just the purpose of this conference; to examine how, and to what extent, each Christian author manages to write a good mystery that is also a strong enough box to hold the human spirit—and divine spirituality.

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