16 March 2010

Report on Christianity and Detective Fiction conference

Last weekend I attended The Conference on Christianity and Detective Fiction, presented by The Northeast Region of the Conference on Christianity and Literature and Pace University in New York City. Besides a really great, adventuresome weekend making my way to and around the city via bus, train, and subway, and a fantastic visit with all my family and a bunch of friends and staying with Nadine, the conference itself was lovely. I began reading detective fiction back in the early autumn in preparation for this and had a great time with Dorothy Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, especially. Here’s a brief report on the events and speakers of the conference.

Unfortunately, due to complications with subways, etc., I arrived late to the conference. Actually, I’ll tell the story. I left Allentown by bus at 8:15 am and arrived in NYC nice and early: around 10:30. Since the conference didn’t start until 2 in the afternoon, I had plenty of time. That was just fine, because I wanted to go to the New York Society Library and consult their copy of Charles Williams’s published mystery reviews. But I had luggage to haul around. So I conceived the brilliant idea of bringing my luggage to Pace Univ. (where the conference would be) and leaving it there while I trotted around the city. Now, mind you, at this point I had no map of Manhattan in my head. I do now! So, I got off the bus at 42nd street (Port Authority) and took the subway down to Pace, which is smack up against Brooklyn Bridge. It was a bit of a walk from the stop (I found out later I could have gone to a different stop that was practically on the school’s doorstep). By this time I was a bit hot and hungry and very glad to find the Univ. So trot in, country-naïve, and ask where I can change and leave my bag. Nowhere. Nowhere? Nowhere. Harrumph. So I have to drag the stupid heavy suitcase down into the subway again and go all the way up to 79th street. The library was quite accommodating and I got my research done in 45 minutes flat. Excellent. Time for lunch. Only I didn’t figure in all the extra time that would be taken by having to get subway attendants to let me through barriers and all that (especially when I went down the wrong steps and to the wrong side of the tracks once!), so I was late. In the end, I feel like quite a veteran of the NYC public transportation systems, and I like them a lot. But they took a little getting used to.

So I missed Chris Willerton, Abilene Christian University, “Dorothy Sayers, the Trinity, and the Creative Reader”—whom I very much wanted to hear. I’ll have to write and see if he can send me a copy of his paper.

Sayers and her peers

Christine Colon, Wheaton College, “Sayers and the Theology of Gender”

Prof. Colón began with a very useful and interesting survey of Sayers’ nonfiction work on the topic of gender roles and the place of women. She discussed the essay “Are Women Human?” in which Sayers makes the case that women shouldn’t be treated as “women,” as if there were a homogeneous block under that label, but as individuals. Just as I don’t want to be known as an American poet, or Women poet, or even necessarily Christian poet—I’d rather be known as Me, for what I have done (but not without influences, of course). Then she discussed Sayers’ piece “Why Work?” in which Sayers lays out a theology of work that allows a secular vocation to be viewed as sacred. Sayers laments the ways in which the Church suppresses women. Then Prof. Colón turned to the fiction, to examine the relationship of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. In their romance, Colón claimed, they had to struggle with the competing claims of passion vs. integrity. Harriet could not marry Peter until she learned how to keep her vocational integrity within their relationship. Each had to gain independence and to be true to Vocation in order to be faithful to Truth. Only in that way were they able to have a healthy marriage of equals.

Edmund Miller, “Death and Execution During the War Years in the Posthumous Lord Peter Wimsey Stories Complied by Jill Paton Walsh
Prof. Miller was discussing two novels, Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death, published in 1998 and (I think) 2003. These were written by Jill Paton Walsh after the model of Sayers’ novels. I am unclear whether or not they were based on fragments Sayers left behind. They are novels of manners, but they are also tales of a world at war. They have an interesting historical perspective, packed full of historical details, but they are more critical of the Monarchy than Sayers herself could have been at the time. The second novel enacts the difficult of understanding justice in a world torn apart and confused by the World Wars. It also involves the reader in a metatextual interpretation.

Next was Welcome and Introduction by Walter Raubicheck, Pace University, one of the three organizers of the conference. I don’t think I’ve attended a conference before at which the organizers have given papers. Fantastic work—but really, you ought to sleep sometime!
Dr. Raubicheck’s paper was partly an explanation of how the conference idea evolved and partly just a very thoughtful, funny, engaging discussion of some of the most important detective fiction writers (mostly Chesterton), their detectives, their themes, etc.

’Mainstream’ Writers and the Mystery

Helen Andretta, York College, CUNY, “Mystery and Meaning in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Enduring Chill.’”

Dr. Andretta gave a detailed, play-by-play plot summary of this excellent story, pointing out some themes such as child-parent tension and the mysterious nature of the main character’s illness. This is one of my favorites by O’Connor; I highly recommend it. I’m using it with my Advanced Language Arts students later this year.

David Humphries, Queensborough Community College, CUNY, “Putting the Cast of the Upright Judge in Contest: Robert Penn Warrens All The King’s Men as Cold War Mystery.”
It’s too bad I haven’t read All The King’s Men; I would have understood this paper better if I had. David talked a lot about history, narrators of history (It doesn’t matter who’s tell history): history is a narrative based on the beliefs of those who tell it. But then what happens is the exchange of a lie for a truth and the acceptance of the past. Now I have a note here that says: “God made man by making him separate from Himself; evil, then, is the measure of His greatness”—but I don’t have a note of who says that, whether it’s a character in the book, the author, or a scholar talking about the book. I think that it might be the narrator, because he says that “Separateness makes evil and free will possible,” and he forgives God at the end of the book.
Now, the other part of David’s paper, on which I apparently didn’t take notes, was how we can read this book as allegory? parallel? commentary? for the events of 1939-1945 and for the subsequent Cold War. I would like to read more on that topic, because that is what fascinates me: books as historical artifacts and as the [re]making of history á la 1984. Well, maybe that’s a bit extreme.

Jane Blanchard, Westminster Schools of Augusta, “Conrad’s Extravagant Mystery
Jane used a really great method for analyzing Heart of Darkness. She chose one scene, one motif, really, and used it as an analogy for interpreting the entire book. She took the image of “the Book”: a mysterious Russian book that fascinates Marlowe so much that he withdraws from his surroundings to contemplate the text. He has a singleness of intention and of purpose. This emphasizes the importance of work. And it gives a perspective on the entire novella as a textual experience that is not easily decipherable.

Trish Verone, Caldwell College, “Esau Revisited: Mistaken Identity and T. C. Boyle’s Talk Talk
This paper took a very interesting approach. It compared the story of Jacob and Esau (from the Bible) with T. C. Boyle’s 2006 novel Talk Talk as tales of identity theft, flight and chase, and confrontation. She went through both stories, episode by episode, showing what they have in common, pointing out especially the face-to-face encounters at the end that conclude with some kind of forgiveness.

So that was Friday. After the papers were over, there was a lovely wine & cheese reception. I greatly enjoyed being with this group. I got to talk to almost everyone there and made some great connections, even some new friendships! Then I went out to dinner with Anya Morlan (one of the conference organizers), her husband, and two of their students. [Anya, by the way, I was thinking of Psmith from P. G. Wodehouse’s novel Mike & Psmith and got him mixed up with Thomson & Thompson, the second of whom has a silent ‘P’ in his name! I distinctly remember one Tintin scene in which Thompson is on the phone trying to get the caller to spell his name right; “No, with a ‘P’ as in ‘Psychiatrist!’”)]

PLENARY SESSION: Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, “G. K. Chesterton on the Art of Murder and the Divine Detective.”
This was a really delightful paper, probably the best of the weekend. He began by talking about how Chesterton brought the mystery into the domestic sphere, developed the locked-room mystery, and introduced the “underdog detective” in the person of Father Brown (based on a friend of Chesterton’s, Father John O’Connor). He based his stories on the importance of an unimportant character and used his mysteries to combat the conception that popularity means a work is not a masterpiece. He was the voice of the common reader. He does not tell the audience what it should feel, but what it does feel. Then Mr. Ahlquist discussed three reasons that we love detective stories.
1. We like justice. The Detective is a moral figure who preserves order. Chesterton said that “The romance of the police force is the romance of man.” And the genre itself is a defense of reason.
2. We like surprises. We like to be shocked by something we already know. Good literary criticism does the same: it tells us what we always knew about a book, but never quite thought of like that. And the surprise factor of a mystery is achieve through simplicity: “Real mysteries don’t hide mysteries; they reveal them.” Chesterton, by the way, was the first to use the term “mystery story.” He points out two kinds of mysteries:
I. The puzzle, which is temporary and surprises us once
II. The Eternal Mysteries that continually surprise us.
3. We like (whether we know it or not) the connections between the detective story and Christianity. These include:
- Faith and Reason are united, not opposed; the supernatural and the rational are also united, not opposed.
- There are 4 Biblical principles illustrated in the mystery genre. They are:
I. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” This applies to the cast of suspects. The most suspicious is obviously not the murder; the least suspicious obviously is.
II. “Seek and ye shall find.” There are clues, evidence, and it is like a great game of hide & seek. You know you will find the hiders; you know the mystery will be solved.
III. “Love your enemies.” Quite frequently, Father Brown discovers the criminal, talks to him, gets him to confess and repent, and then lets him go. Father Brown seeks out sinners to forgive them, not merely criminals to convict them.
IV. “The Truth shall set you free.” It’s all about finding out the truth.

After the plenary session was my panel:
Fantasy and Mystery

James Thomas, Pepperdine University, “J. K. Rowling’s Real Mystery: Harry Potter’s Journey from ‘Interesting Uncertainty’ to ‘Incomprehensible Certainty’”

James Thomas is one of the three “Potter Pundits” who have a regular podcast about Harry Potter; each of the members (or at least two of them) have also written books on the subject. They all believe that the Harry Potters books are not “No country for old men”; rather, these are mature, complex novels filled with important [Christian] themes. What’s more, they are excellent detective fiction. (Just think through each book; in each, there is a mystery to solve. What is the sorcerer’s stone? What’s inside the chamber of secrets? Who is Tom Riddle? Who is the Half-Blood Prince? Where are the horcruxes? and so on). But they are something more, too. They are the record of a faith journey. It very much parallel’s Gerard Manley Hopkins’s faith journey, which he described as a passage from comprehensible uncertainty to incomprehensible certainty. And Harry’s journey is much the same. Furthermore, Harry’s development from selfish boy to sacrificial Christ-figure depends upon three capital-M Mysteries.
I. The Mystery of Faith in things unseen. This can be clearly seen in the contrast of Hermione (the skeptic) and Luna (the over-credulous believer). But throughout the books, Harry has to learn to have faith in many unseen things, including the Hallows.
II. The Mystery of Death. This is most explicit in Dumbledore’s story, but more subtly in the Thestrals. Compare I Cor. 15:26. It is also operative in the Department of Mysteries, where study, thought, time, and death are housed. But there is one door in the Dept. through which Harry cannot pass. This is the door into:
III. The Mystery of Love. Love is an ancient magic. Sacrificial love has conquered death. The revelation of Snape’s true nature is a revelation of love. Cf. Proverbs 30. Love is one of the “Unspeakables”: it is God’s unspeakable gift. It is ineffability, Mysterion, deep and timeless.

Then I gave my paper. It was in large part based off of a discussion on this blog with “Orphan Ann” about the genre and value of War in Heaven. I posted my abstract yesterday.

Next was an acquaintance of mine, a professor at Nyack under whom Nadine and Eve studied, the librettist for “Danaher: The Musical”: Charles Franklyn Beach, “Murder Mystery and Holy Mysteries in Charles Williams’ War in Heaven.” Yes, we presented on the same book. And we did not compare papers beforehand. But it worked out really nicely! For about the first page, we said the same thing. Then we veered off into totally different but very complementary directions. I focused mostly on the generic conventions of a murder mystery and places WiH firmly into in 1930s Golden Age setting. Dr. Beach focused more on the medieval source materials from which CW drew. He discussed the two primary images in this story: The Grail (which CW spells Graal) and Prester John. He pointed out that Williams avoids the danger of didacticism, because “poetry is not meant to teach, but to lead us to joy.” Therefore, CW uses a sacramental approach, based on a firm belief that matter is good. Perhaps I should post a separate summary of Dr. Beach’s paper, because on it I (naturally) took the most notes.

Recent Detectives

Anya Morlan, Pace University
[one of the conference organizers], “Sister Pelagia, the Nun-Detective: Voice of Doubt or Reason in Boris Akunin’s Fiction”
Anya, who was born in Russia and has maintained some of her Russian roots, discussed a trilogy by Akunin, especially the second volume [I think], Pelagia and the Black Monk, published in 2009. This novels is rife with images, and is full of themes about history and time. The setting is never pinned down, but can be pretty well located in 1896 because of a reference to Checkhov’s play The Seagull. And, speaking of Checkhov, this Akunin novel is based on a Checkhov short story, “The Black Monk.”
Pelagia, in Akunin’s novel, is a nun who functions as a detective. The first volume of the trilogy is not religious, and the third is blasphemous, suggesting that Jesus was a homosexual.
Checkhov’s story, published in 1896, tells the superstitious tale of a Black Monk who wanders the earth for 800 years. It raises the question: “Can death be a godsend?”
In 2008, there was a trial in Russia in which Jehovah’s Witnesses were tried and found guilty. Orthodoxy was confirmed as the state religion and other denominations were outlaws.
Interestingly, Akunin writes nonfiction works under his real name and detective fiction under a pseudonym; detective fiction is scorned in Moscow, and Akunin said that he wanted to write something that his wife would not be ashamed to read on the train, so he tries to write literate, sophisticated detective novels. And he makes the covers very cultured, not like graphic slash fiction. In his detective novels, he challenges genre. He switches narrative voice, incorporates gender studies issues, allows readers to solves mysteries that the characters can’t á la Lacan’s claims about the knowing subject, has characters die of fear or grief, and includes epistolary sections.
One of the most fascinating discussions in this book is between Pelagia and [I think] her superior. He tells her that Hope is God; no one can honor God with their lives unless they hope to survive. That is why suicide is wrong. She counters: “Did Christ hope to survive?” And the superior drives her away from himself in anger. In the end of the story, she forgives, because she can.

Then I missed a couple of papers because I was interviewing Charles Kovich, a mystery novel writer; that interview will appear here soon as the first in a new series I’m about to launch. More on that in another post.

Christianity and Literature--[a session that veered away from the conference topic to deal with other works of literature and culture]

Regina Walton, Boston University, “ ‘Sighs will convey/Anything to me’: Sighs, Groans, and the Mystery of Wordless Speech in George Herbert’s Poetry.”

In this paper, Ms. Walton, a grad student, claimed that the reader of poetry is a detective; so is the scholar. She went on to compare the grammar of tears with the grammar of sighs in a very astute examination of some 17th century conceits. Tears are associated with the restoration of sight, while sighs are expressive of the spirit (Ruach, Spiritus). Sighing was thought to shorten life, and thus bring the sigh-er closer to his union with God. It is connected with the generative breath that God breathed into Adam. It is associated with the Holy Spirit’s movement and His intermediation. Through a very detailed deconstructive analyses, Ms. Walton pointed out all of the occurrences of sighs and groans in Herbert’s work and came to the conclusion that they are more expressive than speech.

Ineffability. Gotta love it.

Michael Rosenfield, Pace University[the third conference organizer], Missing in Action: The Deity in Patrick Hamilton’s World War II Novels.” I would have appreciate this paper more if I had read the novels in question. But the main idea was to point out how historically involved these books are, referencing as they do the major events and characters of World War II.

Amy Frazier, University of Texas at Brownsville, “The Ultimate Self-Sacrifice of Unsung Heroes: Christian and Non-Christian Christ-life Figures.”
This paper was the story of five such self-sacrificial Christ-like figures, both fictional and historical. First, Prof. Liviu Librescu, who gave his life during the Virginia tech shootings so that his students could escape out a window. Second, Michael A. Monsoor, who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades in Iraq. Third, a character named Johannes from the film “I Am David,” who takes the blame for a theft and is shot by a Nazi concentration camp guard in David’s place. Fourth, an anonymous woman from the short story “Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Gas Chamber” by Tadeusz Borowski, who volunteers to take care of two children whose mothers have abandoned them, even though she knows this means certain death. And finally, Sidney Carton from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

And that was the conference! A very delightful time, all in all, with lovely people and good fellowship.


Plaid Eggnog (aka Julie and Steve) said...

This is fascinating stuff to me, as detective fiction (specifically Anglican) is my favourite read in my spare time. I wish we could get together and chat about this - I would love to hear more, and to see where academic currents are flowing in this particular field.

Walter Raubicheck said...

Wow, what a wonderful report, Sorina. THANK YOU for sending it to us.

I also really enjoyed the good feelings and fellowship at the addition to some very fine papers.

And next time...Murder Mystery on Saturday night!! :)


Rosie Perera said...

Hi Julie, great to see you posting here. (Sorina: Steve and Julie Golding Page are friends of mine from Regent from way back; both Anglican priests now; I don't know how they stumbled on our blog; perhaps through my link from Facebook??)

Anna Morlan said...

Thanks for such an detailed review! Since I couldn't attend all of the concurrent sessions, I was very grateful for being updated on the ones I did end up missing. And I am so glad you enjoyed the conference! Though I am sorry you had such a rough time getting down to Pace -- I should've given you my phone number ahead of time...

Anyhow, I am happy to see so much interest in the subject, and hope we can continue all of these wonderful discussions.I think we managed to discover quite a few very interesting connections between detective fiction and Christianity...

cwwillerton said...

Sorina, thanks so much for posting this. There are mighty few web sources with models of how Christians read--especially how they read detective fiction. Good stuff!


David said...

Thanks for such a thorough report! It makes for a nice record of the conference, and I have to admit being surprised to see my name on the web! By the way, the quotation is from the narrator, and let me know if/when you get around to reading the novel. Best Wishes!

Iambic Admonit said...

David: Thanks! Hum, the novel's not on my short list, and even the short list is longer than my lifetime. But maybe in the next [lifetime]...

Donum Vitae said...

I've just discovered your blog, by googling the 'four biblical principles of the detective story'. Great post. I had been watching a video on YouTube - link here >> and I may be wrong but in the video it says "Real mystics don't hide mysteries, they reveal them" not real 'mysteries'. Perhaps you could clarify? Many thanks. Very interesting post.