Mystery and Worldview

In my younger days, I was enamored with Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to be the guy who walked into a room, put all the pieces together, and was fooled by no one. (In retrospect, it was just pride.) Then, I was introduced to G. K. Chesterton. First, I read The Club of Queer Trades, followed by the Father Brown mysteries. While I found these stories to be quite enjoyable, I also found that Chesterton was actually arguing with Doyle by setting up a polemic against Holmes. It was a matter of atmospheres, says Chesterton in the “Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown.”

In Doyle’s world, a fact (sometimes referred to as a brute fact) needs no interpretation. In essence, fact equals truth. Holmes could always arrive at the truth inductively by means of gathering the facts; they always pointed him in the right direction. This worldview could be summarized with the sentence, “Seeing is believing.” Chesterton, in contrast, argues that facts require interpretation, and that the interpretation of the facts can be judged as true or false, depending on whether the interpretation corresponded to reality. One of the best examples is the Father Brown mystery, “The Honour of Israel Gow.” Unless we know the truth ahead of time, we cannot make sense of the facts. And in a sense, is that not how we read Holmes? It is only after we read the last page that all the pages that came before make sense. We can summarize this view with, “Believing is seeing.” (I believe this to be the correct worldview for reasons I cannot elaborate on here.)

I have read all of Holmes, and I have read all of Chesterton. This past summer, I picked up the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy Sayers (I recommend reading them in chronological order.) Sayers wanted to perpetuate the ideas of Chesterton, and she is a descent writer. The worldview she presents is like that of Chesterton. After finishing those, I decided to look at other famous British detectives. I started with some Agatha Christie mysteries and finished two of them: Then There Were None, and her first Hercule Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I am currently working through Christie’s first Miss MarpleThe Murder at the Vicarage.

While I am reading them, I cannot help but try to pigeon hole them between Doyle and Chesterton. Is there a spectrum of worldview in the world of mystery writers? Do the little grey cells of Poirot match the wits of Holmes? Is Miss Marple’s powers of observation keener than Father Brown’s? Or, as my wife say, am I just over thinking it, and maybe I should relax and just enjoy them? Regardless, I want to know what Christie’s writings are teaching me about the world around me, and whether she is right or wrong, near or far. So far, I am uncertain, and so, I will continue to read with my eyes open.