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The little grey cells

12 September 2014

BLAME a Church Times reader for what follows. After a talk I gave at Greenbelt, he said: "That will have to be a column." And, obviously, the customer is always right.

I had been speaking about literary detectives. We had reflected on how the world's two most famous detectives both came to be hated by their creators. Conan Doyle could not kill off Sherlock Holmes quick enough, much to the angst of the nation. And Agatha Christie found herself bored to tears with her Belgian creation, Hercule Poirot, considering him an embarrassment. "Be very careful what central character you create," she said. "You may have him with you for a very long time."

Many see the fictional detective as a Christ-figure in the eye of the storm, a lighthouse leading us home to a place of explanation, justice, and restoration. So how do you like your detective? What is the right balance between struggle and brilliance, for instance? Are you bothered when Wallander or Morse are moody, and make life unpleasant for their team? Or do you think: "Act your age, not your shoe size, and get on with solving the case."

It may be that you want in your detective what you want in your Jesus. Some people prefer Jesus in total control of everything, as portrayed in the Gospel of St John: Christus Victor, everything is going to plan, even when he is being crucified. No cause for alarm, these nails are great.

The other Gospels have a slightly different Jesus, one who sweats more, struggles more, fighting to keep his head above water.

In the same way, how much humanity do you want in your detective? "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" Jesus cried out. But do we want our detectives abandoned, too?

If I don't feel like too much struggle, I'll enjoy a Columbo, or a Cadfael. I can relax with them: I needn't worry, they're on the case. If I want something more contemplative, more difficult, I'll ponder Foyle. I will follow him because of his moral strength and courage, but always aware of a town's - Hastings - experiencing the pain of war. And, even more poignant, perhaps, the end of war, when the soldiers return and discover that there are no blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover.

The Swiss crime-writer Frederick Dürrenmatt is unsettling. He wrote a novella, The Pledge, in which the policeman with Holmes-like powers finds them useless in dealing with the random brutality in the world. His detective is gifted, but the world is too savage a place for that to make any difference.

Simon Parke is the author of the Abbot Peter murder-mystery trilogy (Review, Books).


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