Academic journal article Mythlore

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

Academic journal article Mythlore

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

Article excerpt

War in heaven, written by the unjustly overlooked inkling Charles Williams (1886-1945), was published in 1930. It begins with this glorious sentence: "The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse." After this auspicious opening, the book unravels into a fantastic tale of the Holy Graal, black magic, and devil worship. The standard murder mystery beginning gives way to an almost systematic reversal of the standard procedures of that genre. In War in Heaven, Williams departs from the rules that traditionally govern the murder mystery and manipulates the genre to serve his central purpose. This purpose is quite different from the raison d'etre of the mystery story proper, and leads into a discussion of how, and to what extent, a mystery can incorporate Christian themes. An examination of this book, then, becomes an investigation of a fundamental premise about how Christians write, and read, mysteries. Ultimately, War in Heaven serves as a case study in the limitations--and possibilities--of truly Christian mysteries.

Critics of War in Heaven tend to repeat the same three arguments against the success of this book. First, the opening leads the reader into generic expectations that are overturned by subsequent developments. Second, the characters are not developed as are those in standard fiction. Third, both plot and characters are subordinated to philosophical concerns. Hillary Waugh wrote that "The mystery novel does not contain the equipment to carry messages. It is too frail a box to hold the human spirit" (75). At most, he suggests, a murder mystery can make an implicit statement about maintaining order or about the value of life. Williams goes far beyond this limit.

In order to convict or clear Williams of the charge of not playing fair with the reader, the conventions of the genre must be established. While the "mystery novel" goes by many names and has numerous relations, there are two major strands: the English detective mystery and the American hard-boiled detective novel. Williams, as a British writer of the 1930s and 40s, is an heir of the English type, and the conventions discussed below relate to that side of the mystery family.

Edgar Allan Poe had presented the formula in his three C. Auguste Dupin tales (Nickerson 744, Panek 10), Arthur Conan Doyle had perfected it, Agatha Christie had begun involving the reader more fully in the search for the solution, and Dorothy L. Sayers was raising the genre to new literary heights (Kenney xi) when Charles Williams entered the scene. Aaron Marc Stein states the formula for a mystery tale succinctly:

   The rules are simple. All the data must be presented to the reader.
   When he is confronted with the solution, he must be left with the
   conviction that if he had not failed to take notice of a piece of
   evidence when it was given to him, or if he had reasoned properly
   from the available data, he would have achieved the solution on his
   own. (43)

Any writer who tricks a reader into a false conclusion by withholding data "has violated the form" (43). The ending must feel impossible before it is reached and inevitable once it has arrived.

A more historically relevant (albeit American) measure was released just two years before the publication of Williams's War in Heaven: S.S. Van Dine's "Twenty Rules of the Detective Story," published in The American Magazine in September of 1928. It is a rigorous set of strictures that even the most careful practitioners feel more free to break than to keep. It includes such items as "The detective novel must have a detective in it" (that rules out, for instance, Sayers's The Documents in the Case); "There must be no love interest" (out goes Lord Peter Wimsey); and "The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit" (that eliminates--a famous work by Agatha Christie). …

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