Giles Fraser: Detectives don’t replace God: they seek him

05 January 2012

I have been watching quite a bit of Sherlock Holmes over Christmas: at the cinema, Sherlock Holmes: A game of shadows with Robert Downey Jr (not terribly good), and the BBC’s TV adaptation Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch (which is brilliant). They have got me musing again about an intriguing theory that detective fiction begins in the 19th century as a consequence of secular­isation.

The idea is that the detective comes to be some sort of humanistic replacement for the omniscient God who brings judgement and punish­ment. Writing about the birth of detective fiction, Dr Carole Cusack from the University of Sydney puts it thus: “As organized religion re­treated, it became more difficult to believe the theologically charged notion that good and evil do not go unpunished, and that human life is ultimately meaningful, even when random violence threatens to de­stabil­ize both individual and com­munity.”

Literary inventions such as Holmes are a reflection of precisely this anxiety. Evil is now to be de­feated by reason, and not by God.

But is this really right? Well, it seems undeniable that Holmes’s use of rationality as his weapon of choice in tracking down the villain has a distinctively Enlightenment flavour. Holmes’s commitment to the idea that conclusions must fit the facts is just the sort of thing that one would expect from the National Secular Society. But consider the evidence of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, one of Conan Doyle’s short stories published in 1892.

In this Christmas tale, Holmes is out to track down the reason why the commissionaire Peterson finds a large jewel in his goose. It turns out that the jewel (described by Holmes as “the Devil’s bait”) was stolen from the Countess of Morcar, and subse­quently hidden in the goose.

Holmes gets his man, of course. When he gets found out, the guilty James Ryder breaks down, confesses his guilt, and begs for mercy: “I never went wrong before! I never will again. I swear it. I’ll swear it on a Bible. Oh, don’t bring it into court! For Christ’s sake, don’t!” And then: “God help me,” he cries out: “God help me!”

Holmes’s reaction is to let the man run away. “I suppose that I am com­mit­ting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will do no wrong again. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.”

It turns out that many detectives do indeed “do God” — Fr Brown and Brother Cadfael, for instance. This is why I wonder whether much of the detective genre is an expression of a yearning for God, as much as it is an attempt to find his replacement.

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