Is a Christian Mystery Story Possible?

cdsI mentioned in yesterday’s post that I’ve published a paper on War In Heaven. You can get a copy of the paper here, here, or here. I forgot to mention that this paper also appears as Chapter One in the volume Christianity and the Detective Story, edited by Anya Morlan and Walter Raubicheck, which you can get on amazon.

But in case you don’t have time to read the whole chapter (who does?), here is the abstract for it. You’ll learn a LOT about the novel War In Heaven here! 

Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible?
Charles Williams’s War in Heaven as a Generic Case Study


War in Heaven begins with this glorious opening sentence: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” After this fantastic opening, Williams romps into a bizarre tale of the Holy Grail, black magic, and demon possession. However, from such an auspicious opening to a murder mystery, Williams goes on to overturn most of the standard procedures of that genre. He strays so far from convention, in fact, that War in Heaven is either a really bad murder mystery—or a really good something else.

In this paper, I intend to discuss the ways in which Williams departs from the rules that traditionally govern the mystery, show how he affirms certain essential premises, and illuminate his ultimate purpose. This purpose is quite different from the raison d’être of the mystery story proper, and leads into a discussion of how, and to what extent, a mystery can incorporate Christian themes.

An online interlocutor of mine, after reading War in Heaven, complained that “you begin the book with that perfect, fantastic opening sentence, expect this to be a page-turning murder mystery, and then it turns out to be a metaphysical drama and the poor murdered guy isn’t really all that important.” Her frustration is apt, and can be subdivided into three cogent arguments against the success of this book as a murder mystery. First, the opening leads the reader into generic expectations which are overturned by subsequent developments. Second, the characters are not developed as reader of fiction expect. Third, both plot and characters are subordinated to philosophical concerns.

While this reader’s concerns are both recurrent and justifiable, they illuminate important aspects of Williams’ purpose in rewriting the mystery’s standard operating procedure. First, the plot fails to meet the expectations set up in the opening. Surprising features include a very early (and disbelieved) confession by the murderer, the introduction of an important plot that has (apparently) nothing to do with the murder, and the fact that the real mystery to solve is not ‘Who murdered this victim?’ nor even Why or How he was killed.

warSecond, Williams’s characters are not developed as are those in standard fiction; but does Williams suffer from “a total inability to write credible dialogue; a total lack of interest in the depicting and development of character” (Barclay 99)? Williams’s theological purpose led him to depict characters, in Platonic terms, as copies of absolute spiritual realities. In other words, he sacrificed the psychological and emotional complexities of characters to the eternal realities they represent.

This leads to Williams’s ultimate purpose in War in Heaven. The final accusation he faces is that this book is “too intellectual.” I will approach this charge by discussing his theology and mysticism, especially as they relate to his ideas governing human relationships and interaction with the Divine. In the end, I hope to show that he wrote this book as a metaphysical thriller to communicate doctrine, not (primarily) as a mystery to entertain.

Which leads me to question the amount of philosophy or theology a mystery is capable of supporting. In the final analysis, War in Heaven is not a mystery primarily because it is designed to, if you like, ‘preach’; does it logically follow that pure mysteries cannot preach or teach at all? Hillary Waugh wrote: “The mystery novel does not contain the equipment to carry messages. It is too frail a box to hold the human spirit” (Waugh ‘Mystery vs. Novel’ 75). Yet many Christian mystery writers do communicate messages. Indeed, that is just the purpose of this conference; to examine how, and to what extent, each Christian author manages to write a good mystery that is also a strong enough box to hold the human spirit—and divine spirituality.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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4 Responses to Is a Christian Mystery Story Possible?

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    You say, “in case you don’t have time to read the whole chapter (who does?), here is the abstract for it.” Well, given your generous provision of possibilities to read it, I hope a lot of people will be so intrigued by yesterday’s quotation and today’s abstract to go on to make the time to do so!

    The rewards are many, including the richly-illustrated discussions of mystery stories and of Williams’s novel in relation to them, and also of Prester John (I am very glad not to have missed that!).


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’d like to take up two points from your abstract in relation to each other (urging readers to read the full paper for the actual discussion with all its detail and nuance!). One is the characters, especially as addressed in one example by your disappointed interlocutor: “the poor murdered guy isn’t really all that important.” The other is your saying that Williams wrote this book “not (primarily) as a mystery to entertain.”

    Characters and entertainment. We don’t know exactly how or how much The Corpse as finished in time to be offered to, and rejected by, Faber, by the end of May, 1926, differs from War in Heaven as we know it. But some facts about literary context at the turn of 1925-26 strike me as interesting. In your paper you refer to “the inimitable, Chestertonian Archdeacon” – partly so, I take it, in comparison to (as well as contrast with) Father Brown. When Williams was writing the novel, only the first two of the eventual five books of Father Brown stories had been published.

    In the novel, Barbara mentions, and Lionel explains something about, Jeeves, to Gregory. At the time, only the first three of Wodehouse’s books with Jeeves and Wooster stories had been published (the most recent only in October 1925).

    James Brabazon, in his biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, says of the literary figures who were Lord Peter Wimsey’s “progenitors” as “silly-ass aristocrat with nerves of steel” (like Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel), “being a modern silly-ass (in 1921), who does he take his cue from but Bertie Wooster? – who must of course be accompanied by his Jeeves, now transmogrified into Bunter.” At the time Williams was writing The Corpse, Sayers’s combination of Wodehousian verbal humor and characterization with moral and metaphysical seriousness had only been expressed in the first Wimsey novel, Whose Body? (1923).

    Father Brown and Jeeves and Wooster were already famous by the turn of 1925-26, and Whose Body? selling well enough for Unwin to want to publish more Wimsey, but their fictional worlds of humor of character and style and diction, combined by the two detective story writers with depth and seriousness, were still new and close by in their freshness, when Williams started his entertaining second novel. Not a Wodehouse pastiche, nor even primarily “a mystery to entertain”, but very much, I think, intended to entertain in various ways, and to be (may I say) seriously entertaining.

    Brabazon says “the later, mature Wimsey is all there in embryo in his earlier, sketchier self”, though he “grew up – or at any rate we all, Dorothy included, came to know him better.” I am not sure the same can be said of Father Brown (but I have not yet read all the stories, much less considered them in chronological order). And, of the characters in War in Heaven, only one – Sir Giles – appears again in another novel.

    But, the more I think about them, all the characters are ‘really important’, and dynamic (at least potentially) rather than static. I care about them, and I think that is more Williams’s art than some sort of autonomous ‘reader response’. In his description of the Byzantine porphyry stair in ‘Taliessin in the School of the Poets’, Taliessin says, “Each moment there is the midmost”. And it seems to me, in a certain sense, one could say of the characters in the novel as (among other things) imaginary human beings, each one is there midmost – though some receive more detailed attention than others in the construction of the action. Spoiler alert: some are really rescued, though only one (“the poor murdered guy”) more certainly than ‘temporarily’; one is so shaken in his convictions as to seem to change radically (Gregory); the Archdeacon is really, radically ‘put to the test’; some seem unlikely ever to change (have some, or all, of these indeed put themselves finally beyond reform?); some die; yet the spiritual welfare of each seems to concern Williams – and the reader.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      This is such a good comment that I think it could be edited and turned into a post. What do you think? May I do that?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you for the offer! Yes, certainly (though I would appreciate it if you would leave the shaggy ‘first draft’ here, as it stands, as well)!


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