Lord Peter Wimsey. Harriet Vane. Mma Ramotswe. Inspector Maigret. Kurt Wallander. Erast Fandorin. Sister Pelagia. Flavia de Luce. Father Brown. Sherlock Holmes.
Some of them smoke, drink, brood, and languish. Others write, pray, study martial arts, or collect antique books. But they all question. They all seek. They all discover.
This odd band of detectives—peopled from various nations, languages, and eras—have been my dear literary friends through the years. Alongside the mainstay genres that populate my bookshelves (like classical fiction, international novels, theology and spiritual formation books), you'll always find a mystery novel on my nightstand.
Mystery: More than a whodunit
What place do detective stories and murder mysteries have in my life? Especially in my life as a Christian? Why am I drawn to these lords and priests, gumshoes and opium addicts, arm-chair philosophers and chemistry prodigies? Why does this genre hold such sway over me?
We may think we know what the word mystery means, but I love the deeply Christian roots of the word. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that mystery is a word first used in English in the early 14th century to mean "religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth." It came from the Old French mistere, conveying "secret, mystery, hidden meaning" and from the Latin mysterium, meaning "secret worship." It was used—in the Greek—in the ancient Septuagint compilation of Scripture (in the 3rd and 2nd centuries bc) to mean the "secret counsel of God."
While certainly there's nothing overtly (or even covertly) theological in most of the mystery series I love to read (save the inventive murder mysteries penned by theologians Dorothy L. Sayers and Gilbert K. Chesterton), there is a link between mystery itself and the questions that resonate in my soul.
The hope of Holmes
The first audience reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories lived during the fin de siècle—a time when the Western world was changing rapidly. When shocking ideas from Darwin, Nietzsche, and others were really beginning to take hold and bolster a popular questioning of—even rejection of—the common notions of meaning, of origins, of humanity, of divinity. It was a time when (shock! horror!) some "new women" dared to ride bicycles, wear pants, and even cut their hair. It was also when—and I can only imagine how strange this shift must have been—streets that used to be dark at night or only lit by flames in lamps now began to be lit by strange bulbs, aglow with wires harnessing electricity. It was a world of upheaval, newness, change . . . and questions.