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
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
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).