Thursday, February 26, 2015

Also Sprach Lord Peter

I’ve been enjoying Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries over the last few years, one book a year. I had tried Strong Poison many years ago and came away indifferent to it. But I’ve enjoyed other things by Sayers immensely, and somewhere around year 2 or 3 of my current ten-year reading plan, I heard about a Lord Peter novel I just had to try because it’s subject fascinates me. So I came back to Sayers’s aristocratic sleuth for another go.

The Nine Tailors centers around the English tradition of change ringing, a musical expression of ever-changing patterns played out on a set of heavy church bells. Some of the patterns are so complex, they take a day or more to complete, and the murder in The Nine Tailors takes place in a small English village during one of these twenty-four hour change-ringing events. Change ringing continues to play a role in the structure and plot of the story, and so I ended up totally in love with the book and decided then gradually to read through every novel and story involving Lord Peter.

All of the ones I’ve read in the last five or six years, I’ve slurped down with great relish, and now I can’t exactly discern the source of my tepid response to Strong Poison. But as much as I like the books, I have been a little puzzled that Sayers fashioned a detective who maintains a respectfully skeptical relationship with the Church. Here’s the great explicator of Christian doctrine to a post-Christian world, I reasoned in my linear, blindered fashion. Why doesn’t she follow Chesterton’s path and give the world a detective who models Christian life while solving crimes?

The question has niggled me for a while, but I found a clue yesterday that may have pointed the way to a solution for my mystery of mysteries. I picked up The Mind of the Maker because I read recently that Sayers outlines there her view of artistry as a key component to understanding what “the image of God” might mean. She starts the book by setting out the difference between a fact and an opinion, mostly, she says, in an attempt to keep from being misunderstood. She wants readers to know that she is laying out facts about tenets of Christian doctrine, which in turn are meant to reflect facts about the universe. Opinions don’t change facts, she goes on, and her state of belief or disbelief in Christian doctrine is not a topic of the book; it could just as well have been written by a Zoroastrian.

Suddenly, three disparate lines met at a point before my mind’s eye. Christian doctrine remains what it is whether Sayers believes in it or not. The universe is in a state and has unfolded according to its laws whether any given religion understands that state and those laws or not. And Lord Peter Wimsey looks for facts, which stay factual whether Lord Peter is a Christian or not. Parhaps Sayers wants to use these mystery stories to illustrate some patterns of the universe that continue (if Sayers’s view of them is correct, of course) no matter the faith of the detective: Catholic, Anglican, Zoroastrian, or post-Christian apathetic. Of course, to test this hypothesis, I’ll have to read all the rest of the Lord Peter Wimsey books. I think maybe I can stand it.

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