(from The Armchair Detective, volume 30)
Write what you know, the pundits say, and I agree–except that those of us who came of age in the Sixties are conditioned to take the road less traveled by with only the different drummer to keep us company. As a writer, I often find myself stumbling around in the woods, feeling lost, losing hope, and ending up with mud everywhere, but especially on my face. However, the journey while it lasts is more interesting than the interstate highway of common knowledge; it certainly has a way of keeping complacency at bay.
Not that I always set off into uncharted territory armed only with my fountain pen and a copy of the relevant 1914 Baedeker’s guide: I do have two very decent and hard-won degrees in the field of religion. The first, from the University of California at Santa Cruz, is a BA in comparative religion, for which I wrote a thesis on the role of the fool in western culture. My Master’s, from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, included a thesis on “Feminine Aspects of Yahweh.”
These topics may seem an unlikely basis for the career of crime writing. However, one of the problems with Writing What One Knows is that for most of us, the areas of true expertise are dead boring, along the lines of bottling tomato sauce or patching holes in sheetrock, and while Peter Dickinson or Dorothy L. Sayers may be able to create fire and poetry out of dry rot and advertising campaigns, we lesser mortals need to look around for a seed with a bit more energy in it.
For me, that seed has often been something theological. To Play the Fool began with the question, What would a holy fool–a figure who belongs to the rigid social order of the orthodox church or the feudal court–look like in the Twentieth Century? A Monstrous Regiment of Women, in which our heroine is faced with a number of thresholds, explores the idea of God’s femininity (or perhaps womanliness) as a subtext to Mary Russell’s own exploration of body and mind, male and female, intellect and faith. A Letter of Mary poses the sticky question of the role of women in the authority of the early church, and then proceeds to step cautiously around the question for the remaining 250 pages (an attitude, come to think of it, not unlike that of the last 1950+ years of nonfictional story line.)
There are, of course, other things going on in the books, but the subtext of theological issues gives each story its texture as the abstract ideas intertwine with the actual plot. Using an abstract idea to underscore plot elements is a technique used in any type of novel, but it is of particular value in the mystery–not, may I hasten to say, in a heavy-handed, let’s-see-all-the-girders-and-the-anchor-bolts mechanism where the foreshadowing is black as ink and the directional arrows neon bright. Subtlety is all, in genre or mainstream fiction.
There are any number of reasons to include theological elements in a story. For one thing, religion may be merely a practical cog in the mechanics of story-telling. If, as John Gardner tell us (not the thriller-writing John Gardner, the Grendel and Art of Fiction one) detail is the life-blood of fiction, in crime fiction it is not only the blood, but the pumping heart as well. If I write about nomadic Arabs in 1919 Palestine and describe the tents, the coffee ritual, and the kuffiyah, how can I fail to bring in the Qur’an? Or in 1923 London, give the reader the cloche hat, the silver tea-set, and the taxicabs, but omit the Book of Common Prayer?
Theological ideas in a story can also serve to spur the writer, and hopefully the reader, into some of the more intellectual (if I may use such a word) moments of this multifaceted genre of ours, along the lines of Dorothy L. Sayers’ use of campanology in The Nine Tailors. She might have been able to tell the story without quite so much of that bell-ringing stuff (and indeed, a fair number of her laboring readers rather wish she had) but she trusts us to find the mental challenge of the peals, the mathematical and utterly English intricacies of Kent Treble Bob Major and Stedman’s Triples, as thrilling as she does; if we do not, well, we can always skip over those parts and do without the clue or two that lie buried there. And, although I hesitate to put myself into the same paragraph with Miss Sayers, that mental challenge is what I was seeking to exploit in A Monstrous Regiment of Women, where Mary Russell becomes a tutor and theological guide to an immensely appealing woman whose innocence is highly suspect.
God-talk, then (to use a literal translation of the word theology) can be used as a straightforward element of the story’s cultural milieu, or as a way of titillating the intellect, but it also provides an unparalleled means of giving depth to the story. After all, we choose to write about murder because it resonates, in fiction as in the real world. A mystery novel deals with ultimate issues, with death and pain and personal responsibility, and if I as a writer fail to face squarely the moral battlefield I have created, I risk being guilty of what Nicolas Freeling calls trivialising a great theme. We may choose to overlook the dark side of what we work with, and write darkly humorous or even frankly and deliberately silly fun books, and certainly an unremitting profundity in crime fiction would be as tedious as an endless toll of one of Miss Sayers’ tenor bells. As a means of counterbalancing the importance of the act of murder, though, as a recognition that life matters and the taking of it is evil, as a statement that if we take our fictional death seriously, we ought to take the life of the characters seriously as well, surely theological speculations have their place.
Of course, sensitivity is called for when a writer uses religious issues, as it is called for when talking about anything that people may feel strongly about. This may be called political correctness by the cynical or good manners by those of us who were actually born here in California (Northern California, I mean; not That Other Place), but it is simply not polite to wrench away a man’s cloak, a thing that keeps him warm and brings him delight, and use it as a means of keeping the feet of one’s story from touching the muddy ground.
So that is why I sometimes choose to write about theology in the setting of crime fiction: as a natural part of life, as a thoughtful excursus, as a means of lending richness and direction to the story, and as a recognition that important questions deserve important consideration.
And also, because it’s Something I Know.
This was originally published in the Mystery Readers Journal in the summer of 2004, in a double issue on Religious Mysteries, and is posted here with the kind permission of Mystery Readers International.
Why does a theologian turn to crime?
We shall pause for a moment for the gallery’s catcalls to settle, ignoring nobly the hoots and cynicisms. Yes, yes; religion is a rich breeding ground for crime, but I’m not talking about the sins of the worldly church, I’m talking about theology, the study of God. Theos + logos: literally, God-talk.
I trained as a theologian. I did my BA in comparative religion (as a good Episcopalian, I pride myself in being comparatively religious) at the University of California at Santa Cruz, with classes as diverse as alchemy, Native American mythology, New Testament Greek, and Russian mysticism. I did my thesis on “The Holy Fool in Western Culture,” following the lives of those men and women who took to heart Paul’s command in I Corinthians that we should all be “fools for Christ’s sake,” embracing iconoclasm, resisting structurization. (Of course, we all know how Paul’s little experiment in Tricksterdom turned out, but the monolithic and unyielding nature of organized religion is a topic for another day.)
I then went on to look more closely at my own tradition, doing an MA at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. There I developed a fascination for the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. The Old Testament is story-telling at its finest, compelling and complex in spite of its sometimes fragmentary nature. Not only do plot and character intermingle pleasingly, but the smallest details of construction are vital: a brief word, a verb’s ending can change everything; a phrase of poetry is repeated with slight variations, and meaning opens up.
When time came to do my Master’s thesis, I chose a topic that interested me on several levels, following its specific story-line from its earliest appearances and through the centuries of the Old Testament, then leaving off when the New Testament began to play with the idea on its own. That thread was the appearance of feminine attributes in the otherwise masculine God of the Old Testament: God as midwife, God as mother nursing the infant child Jerusalem, and God as angry goddess (think Kali), complete with hymns coming straight from the worship of Canaanite and other goddesses. The adoption, and adaption, of such songs and attributes fascinated me, the way the human mind takes a pre-existing language of religious speculation and uses it to say a new thing.
However, when I finished my Master’s degree, I had two small children, a husband gazing longingly at retirement, and twenty-six years left on the mortgage. A PhD would have meant at least seven or eight years of language study alone, after which the real work would begin.
While I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I began to write. And as is so often the case, life is what happens when you’re looking somewhere else.
As I wrote, I found that theology and religion crept in. Not just the patterns of storytelling and theology’s close attention to detail, but as a force to be reckoned with in the lives of my characters. What I wrote turned out to be crime fiction. This was not a deliberate choice, but something I edged into when I found the mystery form not only offered a solid, plot-based platform on which I could build my story, but also allowed me to deal with issues that were too hot-blooded for mainstream fiction. And, I was to discover, because when you’re writing a mystery, you can make use of pretty much any aspect of human life, so long as it has authority for the characters.
Crime fiction is all about passion. Not just sex, not merely the lust for money or revenge, but about anything that causes the people moving across the book’s pages to breathe more quickly—stamp-collecting, even, if the character has been built with sufficient care to make that normally phlegmatic hobby a source of choler. Desire, resentment, trickery, rage, all can coalesce around the most unexpected endeavors.
Mary Russell, the protagonist of seven books now (in a historical series, partnering her with Sherlock Holmes, which began in 1915 with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and with The Game has reached 1924), shares her author’s interest in things theological and feminist. This enables Russell to go places another would not, so that in A Monstrous Regiment of Women, she tutors a woman religious leader on the feminine aspects of God (by interesting coincidence, the same subject as my own Master’s Thesis some sixty years later), thus ingratiating herself into the center of a crime ring. A Letter of Mary moves around a papyrus that appears to have been written by one Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles—a letter that could change the face of Christianity forever. And O Jerusalem finds Russell and Holmes in Palestine, where the very air is thick with god-talk.
The contemporary series I do also draws on religion. Kate Martinelli, homicide inspector with the San Francisco Police Department, encounters a modern-day trickster in To Play the Fool, a man who takes to heart Paul’s urging to iconoclasm. And Night Work finds Martinelli face to face with the incomprehensible (to her) worship of the angry and destructive goddess Kali, when a group of angry and destructive women seek to draw on the store of rage all women hold.
The first stand-alone I did, A Darker Place, is entirely about theology and religion. Anne Waverley is a professor and expert on modern religious movements, those entities a disapproving press dubs “cults.” And in her spare time, she becomes a member of one or another such movements, investigating the religious community for the government and judging the group’s relative stability, alert for any with the potential of being the next Waco or Jonestown. The book is about Anne, about her struggles to redeem herself and to salvage something of her own history, but it is also about how far we humans will go in our quest for meaning in a world of chaos.
It’s a tricky business, using religion in a fictional setting. Too far in one direction, and it stinks of proselytizing; too far in the other, and it appears to despise the believer. And to a recovering academic like me, the hazards of popularization loom large: I’m sorry, but from a scholar’s point of view, The DaVinci Code is nonsense.
Much has been made of the deeper meaning of the word mystery, playing on our fiction genre’s tenuous connections with religious mysteries, particularly the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, which were used to illustrate Biblical stories and lives of the saints for the illiterate masses. Certainly, fiction can occasionally aim to illuminate religious precepts (more specifically, in the case of crime fiction, ethics and morals) to the great unwashed of the ethically illiterate (more specifically, in the case of our third millennium, those who simply haven’t the time to tackle Thomas Aquinas in the original.)
However, the meaning of the word mysterion is problematic, and the case for using the word to attribute a deeper spiritual meaning to The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or even The Hound of the Baskervilles, is shaky.
Sometimes a puzzle is just a puzzle.