Numerous detective stories seek to broaden their potential markets by including an extra dimension, such as conjuring, or cookery, or cats. The Corpse in the Cellar by Kel Richards, the first of his detective series published by the Marylebone Press, takes Christianity as its Ingredient X. What’s more, Richards casts academic and Christian apologist C.S. “Jack” Lewis as his detective and uses Lewis’s brother Warnie and a (fictional) recently graduated student called Tom Morris as a brace of Watsons.
The Corpse in the Cellar has an attractive cover reminiscent of pre-War travel posters. It also bills itself as “a 1930s murder mystery”. That claim, of course, isn’t true. It’s a pastiche of a Golden Age detective story, written by a modern author for an audience who view the past through a filter almost eighty years thick.
This difference matters. C.S. Lewis is a writer whose supporters often find themselves deploying the “of his time” defence, especially when it comes to attitudes to women. However, even his contemporaries (and friends) thought he laid it on a bit thick occasionally:
Incidentally, one has to be very careful with that ‘Bridegroom’ imagery. It is so very apt to land one in Male and Female Principles, Eleusis, and the womb of the Great Mother. And that sort of thing doesn’t make much appeal to well-balanced women, who look on it as just another example of men’s hopeless romanticism about sex, and who are apt either to burst out laughing or sniff a faint smell of drains…
Dorothy L Sayers – Extract from a letter to Lewis: Discussed earlier under ‘The Abomination of Braces: Dorothy L Sayers’ Feminist Rhetoric’
By choosing Lewis as his detective, therefore, Richards poses himself a dilemma. Does he portray an authentic Lewis, the man who in Mere Christianity defended the notion of why the man should be the head of a marriage with the (rhetorically unsound) begged question: “Well, firstly, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?” Or does he soften his main character’s attitudes to suit a 21st century audience?
On balance, Richards opts for authenticity, albeit in a glancing, hit-and-run sort of way, such as having Lewis scoff at Mrs Pankhurst’s supporters for making “the mistake of thinking that women could only be equal to men if they were pretty much the same as men.” It’s a defensible choice, and might even work if Lewis were only in this work as a detective, not as a mouth-piece of moral instruction.
Golden age detectives typically combine three traits. The first is minute observation. Often a Lord Peter Wimsey or Hercule Poirot is the only person to spot an item (or, as in Five Red Herrings, the absence of an item) which doesn’t fit into the crime scene. The second is the ability to observe as well as see: in particular, to identify breaks or false elements in patterns. If the first trait involves gathering data, the second requires synthesis of that data.
The third element is that of directed inspiration. All the great detectives use their own personal experience as a touchstone against which they evaluate and discard red herrings. Their differing backgrounds affect how they do it, but not what they do. Furthermore, the great detectives’ weakenesses come from exactly the same place as their strengths.
Holmes’ overwhelming intellect can easily turn into intellectual arrogance. Lord Peter Wimsey’s ingrained sense of sportsmanship may risk him being played for a sucker.
For Father Brown, everything happens on a cosmic level. Crimes are the symptom of Satan working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year. Accordingly, his modus operandi is to find which Deadly Sin is in play (Envy, Pride and Avarice are favourites). So, in The Honour of Israel Gow he almost overlooks a solution rooted in stubborn honesty in favour of a lurid theory of black magic and “the great devil of the universe … sitting on the top tower of this castle at this moment, as big as a hundred elephants, and roaring like the Apocalypse.”
Miss Marple, on the other hand, starts from the principle that the only difference between sins is not in their nature but their scale. Sin and sinners are everywhere. However, her approach – which involves finding the muddiest pond around, taking a stick and stirring vigorously – produces collateral damage, usually among domestic servants who have spotted something “off” about their household but don’t manage to tell the right people in time.
There might well be a place for an authentic Jack Lewis among that pantheon, especially one who had internalised Cromwell’s advice, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Unfortunately, we do not get that Lewis. The apologetics sections of The Corpse in the Cellar unbalance any hope we may have of seeing a rounded, flawed Lewis at the centre of the book. The book, put simply, plays favourites.
The point of view character, the atheist/rationalist/humanist Tom Morris, is reduced to making straw-man objections or acquiescing to statements by Lewis which the narrative presents as unarguable. In fact, they are diluted paraphrases of material lifted (largely) from Mere Christianity which means that anyone reasonably familiar with Lewis’s work is likely to have worked out their own counters to most of the arguments raised some time ago. Morris, presented with open goal after open goal, doesn’t boot home a single scoring chance.
He doesn’t even point out that Lewis is completely inconsistent when he refuses to discuss the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition, on the basis that they have nothing to do with the religion as taught by Jesus, while simultaneously claiming (wrongly) “Christianity invented the concept of the hospital. It was Christianity that invented the university.”
In many detective stories, these discussions would serve to advance the resolution of the mystery. Lewis might have an insight into how ingrained habits of thinking were getting in the way of his solving the mystery. Something Morris says might show him how he was going wrong, or inspire him to inspect the facts from a different angle.
In fact, Lewis is presented as essentially infallible in the apologetics portion of the book (some 19% of the total work). This leads to a grinding change of registers when Lewis the preacher shifts into detective mode.
Removing the religious arguments would also avoid one obvious dissonance. Neither Morris nor the Lewis brothers demonstrate much respect for actual ethics. At one point they consider breaking into the bank in order to find clues. No-one makes even a token protest about whether this is the “right” thing to do; it’s presented as the obvious action from a pragmatic viewpoint. Furthermore, making all possible allowances for the detached tone of the Golden Age “pure puzzle” story, they display a uniformly flat aspect when it comes to murder:
“Now, this investigation of our own that we’ve thought of conducting,” said Jack quietly.
“That I thought of!” blustered Warnie with a laugh. “I suggested it first.”
“I speak, of course, of the investigation proposed by the senior officer in our ranks,” Jack responded with a grin.
“A jolly good idea too,” I added. “The sooner this mysterious tragedy is investigated and solved, the sooner we can have a real holiday.”
Nothing is spoken of justice or of protecting the innocent. The principal motive for finding a murderer and (potentially) sending him to the gallows is to avoid the personal inconvenience of an interrupted holiday.
Furthermore, the discussions between Morris and Jack about Christianity often seem to take place to fill in time, or because they’re bored or frustrated: “I decided I wanted to think and talk about anything other than baffling murder mysteries or investigations that led to dead ends.” This is not – as it easily could have been – an exploration of how someone has his worldview violently rearranged by being brought face to face with senseless and violent death. There is no link made between what’s happening on the ground in Market Plumpton and what’s happening in the various bar parlours or beer gardens in which Lewis sets out to prove Tom Morris wrong about religion.
So, apart from that, how did I enjoy the detective story? (No spoilers, I promise.)
It begins promisingly enough, as a locked room mystery with a twist. However, its real weak spot is Richards’ failure to engage with means, motive and opportunity: the detective novelist’s Holy Trinity.
The pages taken up by Lewis lecturing Morris on Christianity erode the space which might otherwise be used for characterisation, red herrings or the detective actually being shown detecting. The Knox decalogue gets short shrift; I defy anyone to have worked out the culprit’s motives from the clues we are shown. While the culprit’s identity is reasonably obvious from the outset, to anyone even passably familiar with locked-room mystery conventions (and Warnie ostentatiously reads John Dickson Carr throughout the whole thing) I can’t be the only reader to have tossed the book aside at the Howdidhedoit? reveal with the words, “And the police didn’t even check if that was possible?”
The result, therefore, is a core of Christian apologetics wrapped in an outer coating of detective fiction: a sort of Beef Wellington of a book. Unfortunately, the coating isn’t thick enough to allow the story to stand on its own, whereas the meat in the middle is lukewarm, rehashed and lacks savour.