Over the last five years I have killed 11 people. My first victim was a slimy lawyer in Seattle; my last was a misguided evangelist in Yakima, Wash. I once killed a 14-year-old boy. And I shot an old fisherman while he was standing up in his boat, then drove a propeller across his body to make sure he was dead. My next victim is going to be a therapist in Portland, Ore. I intend to shoot him. Later on I may kill his wife. I’ve never killed a woman.
I write murder mysteries. To be successful at it you need a body and you have to kill it. This genre would suffer horribly if you did otherwise.
While murder is not considered one of the seven deadly sins, it is still one priests are encouraged not to do. And while the Jesuits have been accused of getting away with it for centuries, there is hardly anyone who believes we would really commit one. So why is a Jesuit priest writing murder mysteries? Because I think it’s a Christian thing to do. And yes, a Jesuit thing too.
The Bible’s first recorded crime was a murder. And the motive, while never entirely clear, certainly had theological overtones. From that first bloodletting we all received a life sentence. Our parents got us kicked out of paradise and now we’re not even safe around our own brother. Does that crease on our foreheads come from suffering or from fear?
The number of mystery novels produced each year is staggering. Someone mentioned the number 8,000. There are bookstores devoted entirely to mysteries: mysteries about detectives, private investigators, county coroners and attorneys (both prosecuting and defending). There are historical mysteries, psychological thrillers, police procedurals, amateur sleuth and true crime mysteries. The ones without all the violence and bloodshed are called cozies. There is an entire sub-genre that uses cats. And, yes, there are a lot of religious mysteries, too. I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but in an age when religious vocations are on the wane, there are a ton of priests and nuns up to their elbows in dead bodies. Without effort I can think of a dozen series featuring priests, nuns, monks and even a bishop. So why are all these holy people getting involved in such unholy acts?
I think a case can be made for comparing contemporary murder mysteries to the morality plays of medieval times. Those dramatized sermons portrayed a hapless soul struggling for its salvation against an army of forces trying to drag it straight toward death and perdition. Evil’s rot and ruin reduced people from every level of medieval life into walking skeletons in a gothic danse macabre. Morality plays make W.W.F. wrestling look tame: Death versus Everyman in the Match of the Century. The brave soul who climbed into the ring to face off against Mr. Death usually had as his tag team the Four Daughters of God: Mercy, Justice, Temperance and Truth. With these four heavyweights in his corner, Everyman usually pinned Death and his forces of evil.
We live in an age of violence and uncertainty. Parents send their toddlers off to school wondering if they will ever see them alive again. Public buildings are now barricaded against the threat of car bombs. We know of entire governments profiteering from the war, poverty and injustices they perpetrate against their own citizens. And that driver in the car next to yours could just as easily swerve into the crowd of youngsters at the corner as shoot the tires out from under you. Life is no safer at home. Children plot against their parents, spouses eye each other suspiciously, and our pets fear for their lives. Our phones are programmed to ring 911. Where is Everyman and his Four Daughters of God when you need them?
On the book racks at your grocery store. Our hero is still alive and still fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way. Only now he’s likely to be a tough female P.I. in downtown Chicago or a Navajo policeman in the New Mexico desert. Most of the protagonists one finds in mystery novels rely upon the same resources as their medieval counterparts. They face the world’s evil with their wits, courage and those same four lovely daughters: mercy, justice, temperance and truth. And they continue to win. These modern day saviors provide the same kind of reassurances as those medieval dramas. Good can triumph over evil. Justice can prevail. Crime does not always pay. Bottom line: There is still some hope for this violent, dangerous world.
In the end all of us are seeking the same thingthe road to redemption. By the time we are old enough to read the front page of our newspaper, we know about the dangers, the threats and pitfalls in front of us. We know there is sin and evil, just as we know there is justice and punishment. And we learn that with proper penance there can also be redemption.
Today’s secular mysteries are modern parables about sin and evil, justice and punishment, penance and redemption. Not all the protagonists in these books are candidates for sainthood. Their morals and ethics are sometimes questionable. But in each story they set off with one attainable quest: to search for the truth and to discern right from wrong.
A paperback mystery lying in the shopping cart next to the toothpaste and ground chuck is not a theological treatise. But it is exciting, immediate and, most important, it will be read. And if it is done right, a good mystery can set the reader to reflecting on the fragility of life and how truly wonderful and valuable it is.
I did not start writing mysteries to try to convert anyone. But I wanted to write about good and evil and how people sometimes have to struggle to learn the difference. I wanted to say that I do not think violence is the answer to our problems. I also wanted to tell stories about the priesthood and the men who are in it. They are just as confused and threatened by evil as anyone else. Their struggles are no easier nor any harder. They face the same temptations as everyone else and they suffer the same lapses. Their faith gets challenged, their resolve gets tested.
Reactions to my books are pretty consistent. There are some who wonder, rightfully, what business a priest has writing about something as horrid as murder. I try to explain about the justice and the redemption, and sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t. And then there are those who seem to shrug and say: Oh, well, what would you expect? He’s a Jesuit.
I think I like that reaction most of all. Because that is my motive. For if there was one thing St. Ignatius Loyola was very definite about, it was where he wanted Jesuits to be. He did not want us spending our time in silence behind cloister walls, but to hit the road and keep on going. And while our founder said nothing about writing mystery novels, he did make it clear he wanted us working in the marketplace. Right next to the toothpaste and the ground chuck.