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Detective Fiction and the Fun of Orthodoxy

September 21st, 2015 | 10 min read

By Guest Writer

We're a little late for Agatha Christie's 125th birthday, which was last Tuesday, but all the same I'm delighted to share this fun piece from Matthew Mellema, a new guest writer for us at Mere Orthodoxy. Matt is a lawyer specializing in religious institutions. He's also a writer who explores evangelicalism and quitting cynicism at Follow him on Twitter at @Matt_Mellema. 

"It is the dogma that is the drama.”

Dorothy Sayers wrote the line against the watery theology of her time. But it has implications beyond theology. It could also apply to another one of Sayers' passions: detective writing.

To love detective fiction is to love rules.

Honkaku would be quick to agree. As the “orthodox” school of Japanese mystery fiction, honkaku follows the elaborate conventions of England’s Golden Age detective writers.

My grandpa is a longtime fan of the Golden Age’s greatest author, Agatha Christie. In grade school, he passed that love to me—loaning me books from his library, renting books on tape for long car trips. And that meant passing the rules as well.

Both in England and Japan, the rules were prominent. The admissions oath to England’s Detection Club—which included both Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie—read:

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Ronald Knox, another member, codified this oath into a list of commandments. These include:

"The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow."

"All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course."

"No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right."

"The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader."

The oath and the commandments are tongue-in-cheek. But they point to the Greatest Commandment of detective fiction: fairness. For both the Detection Club and the honkaku school, detective fiction is essentially a puzzle wrapped in a story. It’s a game between the reader and the author. And the author must play fairly.

These rules made for great car trips. One summer, on our way to Michigan for a family reunion, I heard Christie’s “And Then There Were None” for the first time. It’s detective fiction’s most famous premise: ten strangers trapped on an island, and one is systematically murdering the others.

Knowing all the clues were there to find, I hung on every word—eyes oblivious to the hazy Kansas wheat fields, mind racing to any possible solution.

I guessed wrong. But reviewing my missed clues, I resolved to do better next time. Like Charlie Brown and the football, I would solve the mystery before Christie pulled it out from under me.

But not everybody loved the rules.

Two authors became prominent critics of the Golden Age—Raymond Chandler in the West, and Matsumoto Seichō in the East. Both made the same accusation: Golden Age books were unrealistic. Byzantine murder plots in English manor houses, finite lists of aristocratic suspects, suave gentleman detectives who share each clue with the readers. It was all too contrived for Chandler and Seichō. They required something more plausible—real-world locations, everyday detectives, and psychologically-compelling murderers.

These critics reversed the Golden Age formulation. Instead of a puzzle wrapped in a story, Chandler and Seichō wanted a literary novel that happened to involve a mystery. To them, authors shouldn’t stress about being orthodox. Their main concern was artistic freedom.

Chandler was able to turn this new formula into good books. This is partly because he was such a talented writer. But it was also because, for all his bluster against the Golden Age, he largely followed its rules. The real problem is with Chandler's myriad imitators. Though they continue to write “detective fiction," they completely ignore the rules of the game. And when authors disregard orthodoxy, disaster follows.In-The-Woods

To understand the point, consider two drastically different detective stories: Tana French's In the Woods and Yukito Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders.  French's novel is so enamored with storytelling creativity that it breaks the rules of detection. Ayatsuji, in contrast, stuck closely to the rules and ended up writing a more satisfying, creative novel. And it is precisely because he followed the rules that he was able to do so.

In the Woods has the best hook I’ve read in years: Three children go into the woods outside their home for a day of youthful adventure. But when they don't come back that night, the cops start a full-scale search. Deep in the woods, one of the boys is found, fingernails digging into the bark of a tree.  He has three scratches across his back, and his shoes are filled with blood that isn't his. He is catatonic, and has no memory of that day.  The other two children are never found. Fast forward a couple decades. Another child is found murdered in the same area, and—by some incredible coincidence—the lead detective is that same boy who was found in the woods years earlier.

I slogged through all 400 pages to find out what happened to those kids. By the end of the first paragraph, it was obvious that French had literary aspirations. Details of the detective’s mental state bloat the book, and each sentence is flowered and sinewy. It was pleasant enough, but the only reason I kept going was her mystery hook.

As the book wound down, I kept waiting for that one clue to jog the detective's memory and solve the disappearances. What happened to the two missing kids? How did the survivor get those scratches across his back, and whose blood was in his shoes? What was that shadowy creature the book kept alluding to?

The book ended. No answers. Nothing.

French obviously chose to leave the crime unsolved as a creative statement. Her book wasn’t bound to someone else’s rules—she could tell the story she wanted.

Even so, I felt betrayed. For all the literary puffery, In the Woods is a detective book. And when a detective book doesn’t solve its mystery, that violates the reader’s trust. It’s like handing your friend a sudoku, and then after hours of effort telling him the sudoku is impossible to solve.  He would feel robbed of his time. That's how I felt at the end of In the Woods.

More fundamentally, this was a failure of creativity. Inventing an intriguing premise is easy. Anybody could do it with minimal effort—just look at those meaningless polar bears from Lost. But solving that intriguing premise is hard, and takes actual creativity. In the name of freedom, French took the uncreative way out.

After I finished the book and the shock wore off, I went right to Amazon to nod along to the one star reviews.

decagon-house-murdersIn contrast to the literary style of In the Woods, the best I can say about the Decagon House writing style is that it’s utilitarian. Because it’s in translation, it’s hard to know how much of this is Ayatsuji’s fault and how much is the translator. The light characterization, however, is all on Ayatsuji. Even in his glowing foreword to Decagon House, novelist Shimada Soji acknowledges that the characters are essentially robots in a video game.

But none of that matters. Decagon House is all about the puzzle.

I’ve never read a detective book so self-aware of the fact that it is setting up an intellectual puzzle.  In the opening scene, two characters have an argument about the glories of the Golden Age and the rules of the detective game.

The book’s premise is an obvious homage to Agatha Christie. Seven college students—all members of their university’s detective club—spend a week on a remote island with no ability to contact the outside world. One of them is a murderer, and starts picking them off one by one as they put their detecting skills to the test.

Because Decagon House is honkaku, I knew I had a fair chance at solving it. So I scrutinized everything: the map of the house, each character’s cigarette brand, who went to the kitchen when. Right before the reveal, I closed my eyes, crossed my legs, and rubbed my temples in the most Sherlockian way possible, trying to tie the threads together.

I guessed wrong. Even when I was down to two survivors, I still picked the wrong one. And when the reveal happened, I gasped. Ayatsuji had turned the entire case on its head. But, flipping back through the pages, I saw that it all fit together, and spotted the clues I missed.

Ayatsuji’s solution was satisfying and fair. It was also dazzlingly creative. And he did this by staying within the bounds of honkaku.

Ayatsuji had beaten me in a fair fight. And I loved it.

None of this would have surprised Sayers. And it shouldn't surprise any of us who care about Christian theology. It’s a well-worn axiom that, paradoxically, true freedom comes from binding ourselves to orthodoxy. This is true for several reasons.

The first is that setting ourselves to immutable rules allows our creativity to grow even further. Wendell Berry makes this point when talking about set forms of poetry:

“It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Perhaps Ayatsuji created his ingenious solution because the boundaries on honkaku deflected his course in a way he hadn’t intended. And perhaps French, if forced to devise a fair solution, would have created something equal to her hook.

On a more practical level, orthodoxy provides security. Safe within the boundaries, we’re free to dance in the center. GK Chesterton put it this way:

“We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

Secure behind the walls of Ayatsuji’s orthodoxy, I was free to throw myself into the story—analyzing details, hatching theories, and checking alibis. French and her borderless detective fiction is a different story. In the (unlikely) event that I read another one of her books, I’ll be guarded. Because I’ll wonder if the mystery will even be solved, I won’t get too involved. I certainly won’t bother looking for meaningless clues.

Without something solid to lean against, there’s nothing for a mystery reader to do but try not to be duped again—which makes for a dull read.

For both detectives and theologians, drama requires dogma.