Order and Justice: Mystery Novels as an Apologetic for an Objective Moral Order

Mystery novels, taken as a whole, reflect at a deep level the truth of the Christian worldview. And yes, I mean mystery novels in general, not “mystery novels by Christian writers.”

Here’s why.

In any normal mystery novel (notice that I am omitting weird literary or experimental ones; those are the exceptions that prove the rule), certain ingredients are essential:

  1. A crime.
  2. An investigation of the crime.
  3. A resolution of the crime.

All three conditions point ineluctably toward a moral universe, one in which right and wrong, good and evil, have objective meaning. Let’s consider each point.

  1. A crime. In order for a mystery novel to be satisfying, the crime needs to be something recognizably wrong, not something that is merely illegal. For instance, building an office block in contradiction to the city’s zoning requirements is illegal, but in itself is not wrong. The investigation and fining of the culprits would be dull, to say the least. But what if the builders bribed a city employee to make fake permits? What if the architect was blackmailing the mayor into turning a blind eye? What if the people who started to investigate turned up dead? Corruption, blackmail, and murder are crimes, not against some statute created by a bureaucrat, but against the moral order. These things are wrong – and so we have a crime worthy of a mystery novel.

Murder is the gold standard, as it were, of mystery novels, because lethal violence against a human being means violence aimed at destroying a being made in the image of God, one who bears the imago Dei. Murder is objectively worse than, say, stealing the Crown Jewels. That is also why murder that includes torture or degradation of the victim is worse than simple murder.

However, murder seems to be losing some of its ability to shock and disturb in a culture that is saturated with visual images of violence and death, and that is losing its hold on the dignity of the human being. After all, the reason murder is murder, and not just killing, is that human beings have special dignity from being made in the imago Dei, the image of God. So if murder is losing its edge, how is a mystery writer to provoke that desired frisson of moral outrage, so that the reader will eagerly await the unmasking, capture, and punishment of the villain? My completely unsystematic and unscientific sampling of mystery novels suggests that child victims are ever more “popular.” In our jaded culture, we may not be moved by the death of an adult, but we are not so degraded (yet) as to be able to shrug off the death of a child. And in a culture that has become blasé about adultery and homosexuality, one of the few things left that can raise a genuine sense of moral outrage is child molestation. At least so far.

  1. An investigation of the crime. As human beings, we are free to make moral choices – which means we can, and indeed must, be held accountable for those choices. In a materialistic world, there would be no point in investigating a murder. The murderer was acting in the way that the bouncing around of his molecules determined he would act, and the victim was acting in the way his molecules determined he would act, and the intersection of the two yields one of them being returned to his component molecules. So what? In a materialistic world, bound by determinism, a murder victim would be no different from the victim of a natural disaster. To investigate means to look for an active agent in a crime; to find the person whose free moral action caused the criminal event to take place.
  2. A resolution of the crime. The most satisfying resolution to a mystery is for the criminal to be found and punished. The fact that we find a resolution necessary in a mystery novel points toward the moral reality of justice. It is not enough to know what happened; we want justice, not just on an intellectual level, but on a visceral, intuitive level. A mystery novel satisfies precisely when it provides for justice; when it does not, we are left unsettled, unsatisfied.

In some mystery novels, we desire mercy for the criminals – but even that points, again, toward a deep recognition of the moral structure of the universe. Only if justice is the basis for our relationships can mercy enter the equation, for mercy is precisely that which is not deserved but granted, setting the demands of justice aside. Without justice, there can be no mercy, only arbitrary decisions about who is punished and who is not.

In this way, any well done mystery novel points to the existence of a transcendent moral order, of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and mercy grounded not in the passing whims of a culture but in the eternal being of the Creator.

Image: Sherlock. M. Fortsch. CC licsense. 

Holly Ordway

Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles William