There is a certain type of mystery novel that I enjoy. Many serious readers crossed “mystery novel” in the text just now and stopped reading. But wait. The class of novel to which I am referring is as far removed from the modern serial-killer crime scene gore as a Hitchcock movie is from horror flicks like “Scream.” The writing of the true detective novel presents authors with one of the best opportunities to faithfully portray human nature and tacitly present universal themes. If they are up to the task, their work presents readers with an engaging intellectual pursuit and the call to ponder these themes and their intersection with personal experience.
When I read a work of fiction, I want to read a book that connects with the wondering-thinking-creating part of me, not one that appeals to either my baser instincts or my fluffier mind. I don’t want tragedy, sex, or violence for its own sake, like one finds in current crime stories.
Some mysteries aren’t merely crime stories. They are intricate and provocative novels, rich in theme, often loaded with allusions and parallels to other works of literature, even to the Bible. The first half of the twentieth century produced several such writers in England. These writers provide exquisite entertainments with a mind above (but possibly including) blood and bullets. They contain keen observation of human tendencies, well-developed characters, and intriguing puzzles for the careful reader to untangle. They “play fair” with the clues, which are there, despite corners in the plot that the reader can’t (always) see around. Whatever the denouement, there is a consistent representation of the realities of good vs. evil.
Who are they? Agatha Christie (and M. M. Kaye) may share some of these characteristics, but she never really makes it past the threshold (and can we really expect her to, having crafted something like seventy books?). The best are Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. I found Dorothy Sayers ten years ago when the best professor I ever had at Wheaton College, Dr. Mark Talbot (Philosophy) stated that he had been lost in The Five Red Herrings. I found Josephine Tey five years ago when I read an article in The Art of Reading Scripture (Eds. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays) called “Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction and the Construction of Historical Method” and the author, David C. Steinmetz, referred to the plot of Tey’s The Daughter of Time. (One could include G. K. Chesterton on the list as well.)
One of the first things we did upon arriving in England was to locate and register with the nearest library. And I took advantage of being in her home country to locate and request several sometimes-hard-to-find-in-America Tey novels. Six of them arrived a week ago. So far I have read: The Man in the Queue (1929), The Expensive Halo (1931), To Love and Be Wise (1950), and The Singing Sands (1953).
Wanna read Tey? My favorites are Miss Pym Disposes (1946), The Franchise Affair(1948), and Brat Farrar (1949).
To wet your whistle, here’s a sample:
From Tey’s The Daughter of Time:
He turned the pages and marveled how dull information is deprived of personality. The sorrows of humanity are no one’s sorrows, as newspaper readers long ago found out…A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy.