The Religion Of Mystery Literature
By Derek Newman-Stille
Like many people, I have a distinct love of mystery stories. I like the act of figuring out who did the crime. I like following the clues. I like believing that I can solve crimes before the investigators do.
One thing that always frustrates me is the finality of a mystery tale, especially when it is on television. There is generally little ambiguity left, little debate about guilt or innocence. So often mysteries (especially when they are tied to a police procedural show) are about reifying the idea that police always catch their criminal and that they are always right. This moral absolutism has always bothered me, as has the lack of questions about guilt or innocence.
One of the ways that mysteries tie up moral ambiguities is through the confession. What is odd is that actual murderers, thieves and other criminals rarely admit to their crimes unless they have worked out a deal with the prosecution for a reduced sentence because they admit to the crime.
Yet, the vast majority of mystery narratives (especially on television) have the killer confess to their crimes and admit guilt. Frequently, mystery narratives on television don’t even bother to wrap up the story, ending right at the point of confession. This highlights the importance of the confession narrative to mystery narratives by considering this the penultimate moment and the ending of the story.
So why are confessions so important to mystery narratives?
I made a connection when watching the television series Father Brown, a tale about a priest who solves crimes in his spare time. As I was watching, I noticed that Father Brown always sought to get a confession from the criminal, linking the confession of crimes to the confessions of the confessional. It occurred to me that this speaks beyond Father Brown and that there was a tint of Judeo-Christian moralizing in many mystery narratives.
Like religions, mystery narratives frequently portray a simple moral system: good/bad. Like religion, mystery narratives provide us with an image of punishment for crime/sin. Like religion, mystery narratives tend to focus on the confession as a key moment in the guilty person’s life.
I started to wonder – have we been primed to like aspects of mystery narratives because of centuries of Judeo-Christian influence on idea of crime? Do we write our mystery narratives along these lines because of the weight of Judeo-Christian ideologies in our society?
Since Judeo-Christian texts are treated as so important in our society, we often replicate aspects of those religious texts as ways of understanding the world even if we don’t prescribe to those religious beliefs. The tremendous impact of Judeo-Christian texts on other texts in our society mean that they often filter through into texts that are not related to religion.
So what is it that we like about mystery tales? What speaks to us about them? Is it the fact that they provide a tidy, easy moralism? Is it the fact that they present us with a world where crime is stopped? Is it the fact that criminals are punished? Or is it the power of the confession that gives us a sense that people can admit guilt and be rehabilitated or redeemed?
Although there are more complex mystery narratives out there and I have read them, there is something about simple mystery stories that appeals to me like Father Brown, Murder She Wrote, and Sherlock Holmes.
* As a disclaimer, I am writing about this narrative connection to Judeo-Christian beliefs as someone who is not part of those belief systems,