God Detective

03.10.13

Where’s the Faith in Fiction? Try Crime Novels

Can’t find God in literature? You’re not looking hard enough, because He's in the crime fiction of James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly.

God is dead in literature. According to conventional wisdom and prevailing perceptions, Christian themes, along with faith outside the detached analytical realm of sociology, no longer have a role in the narrative of contemporary novelists. Paul Elie, writing in The New York Times, lamented the secular state of the novel in a highly discussed essay in which he surveyed the scene and reported back bluntly: “Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time as something between a dead language and a hangover,” Elie writes, expressing worry and fear over any art form that becomes too monolithic in its spirituality, or lack thereof. But he ultimately concluded, “If any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”

From Dostoevsky to Flannery O’Connor, Christianity has proved a source of inspiration for much of the world’s greatest literature. Elie bemoans its exclusion from the modern American story, and most agree that his appraisal is accurate. Dominic Preziosi, writing for the Catholic magazine Commonweal, confessed, “I don’t read contemporary literature with the expectation of encountering themes of belief,” and Alan Jacobs at The American Conservative, after conceding that he does not read much contemporary literature at all, offered that Elie is “probably” right before explaining the difficulties of depicting a spiritual struggle in compelling style. Gregory Wolfe countered Paul Elie in The Wall Street Journal, and attempted to make the case that religious belief is still welcome and present in contemporary literature, only adding the caveat that themes of faith are now expressed in “whispers rather than shouts.” Wolfe cautions that drawing up “lists of counterexamples” with authors who are devout will not “get to the heart of the matter,” but that is essentially what he does, only he annotates the list with commentary. His list is impressive: Elie Wiesel, Mark Helprin, Christopher R. Beha, and Alice McDermott. But it does little to address the larger trends that Elie and others identify.

Let us consider an entire “genre.” Crime fiction weaves its tale in the threshold between right and wrong, just and unjust, good and evil. It is because of its naked confrontation with philosophy and ethics, and its depiction of drifters, confidence men, femme fatales, petty criminals, serial killers, and agents of the law beset by iniquity and caught in the web of moral turpitude, that it is so effectively and naturally able to deal with doubt, faith, and the inner combat of spiritual warfare. The case for faith in fiction is to be made by those who deal with cracking cases for a living—the fictional detectives, private investigators, and troubled protagonists who inhabit the scandalous, seductive, and serpentine setting of noir.

Crime and noir have always told the story of people who decide to cross an invisible but palpable moral line. It then measures the wreckage—physical, emotional, and spiritual—that results from the voluntary crossing over into another ethical universe—a colder, tougher, and uglier universe. These same questions haunt the tales of the Bible and the lives of the saints.

Take Hit Me, the new thriller by Lawrence Block, a multiple Edgar Award winner, whose hero, Keller, embodies the close companionship of faith and noir. Keller is a contractor whose construction business has sunk below water since the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. With a wife and child to support, along with an expensive stamp-collecting hobby, he reluctantly decides to return to his former profession: contract killing.

Keller demonstrates a militaristic concentration on his task, and rarely pauses to consider the moral quandaries of acting as a hired murderer against targeted adulterers, corrupt businesspeople, and various other unknowing victims marked for death. Block narrates the story with the chilling detail of the power of Christian iconography. In fact, it is only when forced to lock eyes with such symbols and rituals that Keller finds himself in a moment of moral paralysis, unable to continue with his plans to become a highly subsidized grim reaper.

On his first assignment, he is waiting in the maid’s room of an unoccupied mansion for the arrival of his targets, a married woman and her secret lover. When they make their presence known with sounds of flirtation and fornication, Keller, who ought to have struck swiftly, hangs frozen in midstep by the sight of a large crucifix hanging on the wall. He leaves the house and, momentarily, decides that he cannot return to his former line of work.

Eventually, he overcomes the pangs of his conscience, but later in the book when he is tasked with the elimination of a corrupt, criminal monk, he finds himself ineffectual and gun-shy in the face of the church official. He devises a far-fetched plan to poison the monk through the mail, because he realizes that he cannot kill the man face-to-face.

Theologian and author Robert M. Price once recommended that people replace the phrase, “It is no more than a symbol” with “it is no less than a symbol.” Symbols possess worlds of story, sizable signifiers of truth, and the language of meaning that speak directly to the most sacred secrets of our hearts and the most important ideas of our intellect. Block manages to emphasize the importance of religious symbol in his clever use of the crucifix and monk in Hit Me.

Hit Me hits shelves on the heels of the release of Walter Mosley’s new e-book, The Parishioner. Mosley is most famous for his Easy Rawlins mystery series—Devil in a Blue Dress was adapted into a film starring Denzel Washington. In Mosley’s new book, Xavier Rule is a reformed gangster attempting to transform his life from criminality to responsibility under the guiding hand of Father Frank, a mysterious and often autocratic preacher at a secluded church in California.

Crime and noir have always told the story of people who decide to cross an invisible but palpable moral line. It then measures the wreckage.

A woman visits the church to confess her involvement in a kidnapping many years earlier, and she wants to see that her actions are set right. Father Frank assigns Rule to locate the three children she kidnapped—now grown men—whom she helped farm out into adoption. It’s not such a simple assignment for Rule, who struggles to control his passion for power, sex, and money, and his path of redemption is just one misstep away from his old life of crime. Mosley’s underrated work of erotica, Killing Johnny Fry, takes its inspiration from Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and in The Parishioner he substitutes sex for violence. His reoccurring character Socrates Fortlow, much like Xavier Rule, is an ex-convict who finds his path to righteousness beset by the iniquitous. The Parishioner is the first Mosley book to install these major themes within the physical architecture and spiritual setting of a church, and the result is a compelling and challenging narrative.

Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch series and The Lincoln Lawyer, which served as the basis for the movie starring Matthew McConaughey, navigates noir with a spiritual compass, and, like Mosley, uses crime not only to tell a suspenseful story but also to provoke the reader into evaluating evidence demonstrating the veracity of concepts far larger than any criminal case. The search for redemption and the opportunity for moral transformation provide the pulse to Connelly’s fiction. Mickey Haller, the protagonist of The Lincoln Lawyer, believes that there is “nothing scarier than an innocent client,” and is content to represent obvious criminals, steadily amassing wealth as a defense attorney. When he discovers that he was partially responsible for the conviction of an innocent man, and when he is forced to confront the pure evil of a guilty man, he surrenders to a moral calling. He determines that his life must have meaning.

Connelly’s most famous character, Harry Bosch, is named after the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose religious paintings depict the hellish consequences of earthly sins and, with a frightening blend of realism and surrealism, took on apocalyptic dimensions in their representation of spiritual torment, the battle for justice, and the judgment of God. The homicide detective, like the painter, is motivated by a sense of fairness formed by faith and a nonnegotiable moral code. His stone-cold consistency is the source of his virtue and his vice—he is comfortable with bending the law in an “ends justifies means” philosophy of law enforcement.

Connelly and Mosley prove that hands of sufficient delicacy and muscularity can transform the genre of crime fiction into the art of literature. No man is more adept at accomplishing such a feat, however, than James Lee Burke. Burke is the winner of two Edgar Awards and is most famous for chronicling the life of David Robicheaux, a New Orleans homicide detective turned New Iberia sheriff’s deputy. Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic and practicing Catholic who is married to a former nun and is guided by a system of philosophy that combines hardboiled realism and incorruptible mysticism. Burke’s stories might begin with a simple homicide or rape but ultimately feel as if they are anecdotes from the Book of Revelation.

The Tin Roof Blowdown, released in 2007, is set in the Armageddon atmosphere of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Robicheaux must apprehend a pair of rapists, prevent a vigilante from creating more death and destruction, and save the life of a priest friend with a morphine addiction. Robicheaux believes that the rapist and the priest are equal in the eyes of God. The rapist hand-delivers a letter of apology to try to make amends for a crime that can likely never be forgiven, and he prays for forgiveness and redemption before dying. In one of the most moving conclusions to any book, Robicheaux believes that the rapist and the priest, who died in the days after the hurricane, are “safe inside a pewter vessel that is as big as the hand of God.”

“I often refer to my work as crime fiction, but to tell you the truth, I don't know exactly what it is,” Burke told me in an email. “Most of my plots come from the Bible or Greek mythology. I believe in the unseen world and believe the cosmos is probably something like the Oversoul that Emerson wrote of. I believe the essential human drama is between the forces of good and evil.” Right now I think we're at a crossroads and if the forces of greed and war and environment destruction have their way, we're not going to make it.”

Robicheaux’s cases take readers from sleazy strip clubs in the slums to the expensively furnished and well-decorated corridors of municipal power, and it is his ongoing role in the “essential drama between the forces of good and evil” that make the books so captivating, but also make the themes so resonant and relevant.

“Learn to love sinners.” That’s Catholic priest and author Robert Barron’s advice to his seminary students if they ever hope to become effective priests. God is not dead in literature. He is hiding in the stories of sinners.