Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Noble Purpose

I am going to try again to insert a picture in my column today. It might make you laugh, it certainly is an occasion of great humility for me. I am trying to learn to crochet. I went to a friend’s house, who believes in the principal of "tossing you off the dock" as a method. I can barely control the hook, and she’s insisting I begin by making an afghan square. The result – well you either have to imagine it, or see it right there in front of your eyes. The only good thing I can say about it is that it is, more or less, square. I stopped at a Michael’s on my way home and bought a book on crochet, three balls of yarn, and a set of crochet hooks.
Why am I punishing myself like this? Well, I need to learn about crochet for Buttons and Bones, the next Betsy Devonshire novel. You can’t fake knowledge of needlework. You don’t have to do it well, but you do have to know how it’s done. And you learn how it’s done by at least trying to do it.
This Sunday I am scheduled to give a short class at my church on the connection between the Medieval "Mystery Plays" and modern mystery novels. Is there a connection? Yes, I think so. In part, I am going to argue:
Okay that just about exhausts my knowledge of the Wakefield Cycle. So why do I say they are in some way in a league with modern mystery novels?
Reason one: Because they are about fallen human nature. In the plays humans are constantly falling into league with the devil. It’s mostly because they want power, or don’t want to lose the power they have; or because they want something they shouldn’t have and are determined to do whatever necessary to get it. And they always, always fail. The ruse of the stolen lamb is found out, Herod’s wicked plan to kill the Christ Child does not succeed. The traditional, or cozy, mystery deals very much with this sort of thing. Someone, out of fear or greed or in need of revenge, murders another. Always, always, in the end the sleuth/hero reveals the wickedness of the culprit.
Which leads us to reason two: The reason they fail in the Plays is because a good human plays a Christ-like figure and thwarts them. Or – and this is how they aren’t like modern mystery novels – Christ Himself, or his Father, thwarts them.
I didn’t realize this second reason until I read The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle, by John Gardner, Professor of English at Southern Illinois University. He points out how various characters in the play are Christ-like – not in the religious sense, but in the literary sense. They stand apart, they assume authority, they cause the action to either change direction or to stop. The traditional or cozy novel deals very much with this sort of thing. Only one person, a good and honorable person, can understand what is really going on and avert the threat to the other characters by revealing the culprit. This person stands apart, acts with authority, and causes the action to change direction. This person is the sleuth.
Now I feel all high-class and noble.
Did you know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a big mystery fan? There was a mystery novel on his nightstand throughout his Presidency – and he actually gave an idea for a plot to Ellery Queen!

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