“You seem not to appreciate the importance of your special form,” he said. “Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted, and villains are betrayed by clues that they did not know they were leaving. A world in which murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victims are avenged, and future murder is deterred.”
“But it is just a vision, Peter. The world we live in is not like that.”
“It sometimes is,” he said. “Besides, hasn’t it occurred to you that to be beneficent, a vision does not have to be true?”
“What benefits could be conferred by falsehood?” she asked.
“Not falsehood, Harriet; idealism. Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course people read them for fun, for diversion, as they do crossword puzzles. But underneath they feed a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that.”
—Thrones, Dominations, Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh
As Lord Peter notes above, I do read mystery novels for fun and diversion (though I rarely figure out the solution before the detective does). But this articulation of the deeper order and meaning inherent in the genre made me want to stand up and shout “Yes!”. Detective stories portray the world as I often wish it were: chaotic at times, but with the possibility for justice and truth.
When real life feels seemingly random, a collection of subplots and loose threads (and occasional tragic events) that don’t always hang together, it’s comforting to reach for a mystery novel (or flip on an episode of Castle). I’m consoled and heartened by the knowledge that Sherlock Holmes, Maisie Dobbs, Miss Marple, Chet and Bernie, and even 11-year-old Flavia de Luce can trace the clues, find the killer, and wrap everything up by the last page. Although more cases will always crop up, every solution brings us a bit closer to the ideal of a just and peaceful world.
Do you agree with this vision of detective fiction? (And are you acquainted with Lord Peter and Harriet? As you may know, I adore them both.)