Guest Blog by Maryse Kluck
Summery: Comparing and contrasting Mystery books from two centuries, Maryse Kluck finds the old genre valuable. Why is this and what has it to do with the battle between good and evil? Mystery Fiction from the 20th century inspires to fight for the good in our lives, like Greek Tragedies, the Bible, and old classic literature does. Writing literature can be a timeless form of activism.
I have been busy reading mystery novels. Usually I avoid them as I deeply dislike reading humbug such as blood spattering, dismembered limbs, and insane psychopaths, but 20th century mystery fiction seems to be much better than I thought it would be. I’ve been reading some mysteries before, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’- a beautiful book- and one of Dorothy Sayers’ books. But now I’m actively adding detective novels to my reading lists, as I have not done before. A week ago I finished Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘Gaudy Night’, a detective set in the fictional Shrewsbury College of Oxford, and now I am reading an Agatha Christie novel, ‘The Pale Horse’. My goodness, how I love these novels! But I have been thinking why. They are literary classics, yes, and popular (my own grandmother was an admirer of Agatha Christie), but they touch something deeper. Hence why I wish to write this blog post; what snare these mystery novels touch and what they might say about our Western society.
I was reading ‘Gaudy Night’ a week ago and I was half immersed in the book, half irritated at the fact that there is no suspense in day to day life. Maybe some of us would think that this is a good thing, and to an extent, it is. In ‘Gaudy Night’, there is a villain leaving poison-pen letters and trashing the sacred halls of the college, leading Harriet Vane, a detective novel writer, to try to find the cause of this. We are embarked on a journey through Oxford, after the illusive villain, who seems to hold a grudge against women being in academia. This is clearly unpleasant, but there is a motif here; good against bad, heroine against villain. This is what keeps us reading; the allure of Oxfordian academia and intelligence, but also because of the age-old trope that we all love; the fight of the light against the dark.
Mystery and Suspense in Our Lives
We can identify the same theme in Agatha Christie’s ‘The Pale Horse’. There is even some occult in there, which for me gets me even more ‘hyped’, to use a colloquial phrase, because naturally, as a Christian, I would be deeply skeptical of those who dabble in magic and the occult. Even worse, a priest is murdered. The blend of sorcery and the murder of a priest- who would represent the good in this novel- clearly sketches out the plot; good Christianity versus dark magic and homicide. We are brought into a sleepy town, but there is more to it than we think:
‘People who say the country is dull and the towns full of excitement don’t know what they are talking about. The last of the witches have gone to cover in the tumble-down cottage, black masses are celebrated in remote manor houses by decadent young men. Superstition runs rife in isolated hamlets.‘
We are thus brought to a setting where we, the reader, the hero or heroine (for we do not know exactly who the protagonist of the book is), are poised against old, malicious powers; a setting that dates back to old literature. Whilst we may live in a predominantly atheist society now, the traditions of Christianity and the fight against the occult and the bizarre still run through us, still thrill us, hence why we love a spooky Gothic mystery. The fight against evil is a motif we still love; we may no longer read the Bible with its monsters and Romans with their torture methods, we may no longer believe in folklore, but the desire to fight against evil is something embedded so much in our society, we are drawn to mystery books, to assert the role of the hero or heroine.
‘I can’t really go along with this modern playing down of evil as something that doesn’t really exist. There is evil. And evil is powerful.Sometimes more powerful than good. It’s there. It has to be recognised- and fought.’
Our Western society has, thankfully, embraced things such as peace and democracy. We are no longer prey to warring kings or tribes or invading forces- something which we should be thankful of! The last tyranny that Western Europe experienced was in the 1940s, with gruesome, horrifying results. We should be grateful that we live in a free society.
However, there are some drawbacks. I don’t think we should even call them drawbacks, as I see little to no ‘cons’ of living in a place where there is democracy and I can be who I want- a Christian woman who wishes to become a writer (and, bear in mind, being an ambitious woman was not something easy back in the day, and religion could get persecuted)- without fear. My point is, that admits all our freedom, we have gotten so used to it that we no longer feel the need to ‘fight the good fight’. Our daily battles are with bureaucracy (and I know a thing or two about university bureaucracy), spats with friends or acquaintances, and, God forbid, fights on social media. We have lost passion to battle against what is really evil; religious extremism, political extremism, the loss of certain norms and values. We barely call out our politicians if they turn out to be right wing extremists- we just repeat what they said on social media, call them anti-Semities, but actually do something against their barbaric ways- no. We just sit around. We cancel writers and people with different political opinions on social media, but we barely do anything about the fact that in certain places around the world, women are still oppressed, and the earth is slowly but surely heating up. We don’t pick our battles correctly. We no longer face and fight true evil. And some of us actually choose to side with wrongness; whether it is promoting unscientific and ridiculous politically extreme ideology, or destroying academia through the lens of postmodernism, or siding with a dictatorial country that is performing genocide, we seem to have lost it. Perhaps, we know this. Perhaps the universal plot of ‘good versus evil’ in mystery books is what makes them so popular.
Picking Our Battles & Fighting Back: Learning from Mysteries
That said, this is not a ‘call to arms’ to become a social justice warrior, a climate change radical, or a right-wing extremist. And neither is it a call to actual violence (sadly, some people these days think that in order to work against something they disagree with, they have to resort to aggression. This is a flawed and dangerous way of thinking). What I am arguing is to become passionate about something. Identify something wrong in society- and no, that does not involve writing ugly things on Twitter about an author just because she has contrary political beliefs- and deepen yourself in it, how you can take up the banner and strive against it. You do not need to donate hundreds of euros to do this. Anne Brontë wrote a dark, wrathful book about how women were treated in 1800s England, and her book lasts. If she had written a complaining, whiny pamphlet, the 19th century equivalent of social justice warrior tweets, that would not have made an impact. She threw her heart and soul into creating an incredible book about sexism and made it beautiful- but powerful. She thought it through and used intelligent, academic, even spiritual arguments against it. In ‘Gaudy Night’, Dorothy Sayers put effort into describing the academic world, and pinpointed sexist threats to women scholars. Artists, whether they be writers, painters, musicians, poets, have all put time and effort into carefully considering a problem and using the right tools to fight against it. Agatha Christie put writerly effort into creating her ‘good against evil’ mysteries.
We need to introduce more mystery, more ‘hero cycles’ in our lives. We need to become the hero or heroine of our stories, working against something we consider wrong or evil. This gives passion and excitement to our lives, which motivates us to step out of bed in the morning. Now, this might seem like philosophical rambling to you, but this is what I believe. We can’t indulge in our easy lives and not care about suffering or destruction. And, deep inside, I think we do yearn to be our own protagonists and battle against villains. Otherwise, why are we so drawn to mysteries?
These are my thoughts thus far…as I read more, I am quite certain I shall have more to say on this subject.
March 2023, James College, York University.
Special issue of the Literary Ladies’s ‘Gothic Literature Magazine’ is here.
Maryse’s letter to her great-grandfather is here.