Guilty pleasures

While we have to shelter in place, I thought I’d have time to turn to serious reading. There’s a pile of books on the floor next to my desk with titles like How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, and Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle, and Capital and Ideology.

And what have I actually been reading? Very little in the way of serious books, I can assure you. It turns out that I’m actually the teensiest bit stressed out, between the COVID-19 pandemic, and working way too many hours to get our congregation’s programs and services online, and having my usual routine completely disrupted. Without diminishing the importance of the first two, I suspect this last may have had the biggest effect on me: I thought I wasn’t much of a creature of habit, but like all humans I’m very much a creature of habit, and when my daily habits are so completely changed it’s unsettling. So I’ve been reading fluff, junk, pulp fiction — in short, guilty pleasures.

I’ve been reading The Big Book of Female Detectives, ed. Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, 2018). It’s 1,111 pages of guilty pleasures, stories with no intellectual value at all. All right, I admit that there is one piece of serious literature in the book, a very short story (four pages) by Joyce Carol Oates, which I skipped over because every paragraph began with the word “because” and that required a little too much thought on my part. So subtract four pages, and make that 1,107 pages of pure unadulterated thoughtless fun.

The first dozen stories are British and American stories from before the First World War; many of the plots creak alarmingly under the weight of suspended disbelief. One of my favorites from this section of the book is “An Intangible Clew” by Anna Katharine Green, featuring Violet Strange, a very wealthy young woman who is secretly a brilliant detective. Here is how she arrives at the scene of the crime in this story:

“When the superb limousine of Peter Strange [Violet’s brother] stopped before the little house in Seventeenth Street, it cause a veritable sensation…. Though dressed in her plainest suit, Violet Strange looked much too fashionable and far too young and thoughtless to be observed, without emotion, entering a scene of hideous and brutal crime…. Her entrance was a coup du theatre. She had lifted her veil in crossing the sidewalk and her interesting features and general air of timidity were very fetching….”

Many of the early stories in the book — the stories are arranged in chronological order — feature female detectives who hide their brilliance under an appearance of brainlessness. Thus when you finally get to Agatha Christie’s novel The Secret Adversary, featuring Tuppence Cowley as detective, with her sidekick Tommy Beresford, you realize how innovative Christie was. Tuppence Cowley is smart, funny, and brave. She doesn’t pretend to be stupid when she’s not (indeed, it’s Tommy who isn’t very bright, and admits it), and she comes across as a real person, a three-dimensional character. The plot of The Secret Adversary whizzes along at a breakneck pace, so fast that the unbelievable parts of the plot (of which there are a great many) have gone by before you realize how unbelievable they are. And who cares about the plot anyway? — you read this book to enjoy Tuppence’s personality.

Worthy of note is a mid-twentieth century story by Mary Roberts Rinehart, once a best-selling author and now mostly forgotten. Rinehart’s “Locked Doors,” which has appeared in other anthologies, is less a mystery story than a story of suspense; but there’s a surprise ending to the story that makes perfect sense of all the outre plot elements, and while it’s not entirely believable, the ending is believable enough to make it satisfying.

The next high point in the book is a story by Sue Grafton, featuring her famous detective Kinsey Milhone. It’s easy to forget how revolutionary Sue Grafton was: not only are her stories reasonably well-written, but Kinsey Milhone is as smart, funny, and brave as is Tuppence Cowley, but Kinsey doesn’t need a man to make her complete — she doesn’t need to get married (Tuppence agrees to marry Tommy at the end of The Secret Adversary), she doesn’t need a male boss (Tuppence reports to the powerful and mysterious Mr. Carter), she’s independent and alone and likes it that way. If Kinsey Millhone is a result of the feminist revolution of the 1970s, then thank God for the feminist revolution of the 1970s.

Most of the other stories in the book have no redeeming value, but they’re so much fun to read — even if you forget them moments after you’ve finished them. These stories would make perfect beach reading, but since we’re not allowed to travel to the beach they also make perfect shelter-in-place reading, requiring no intellectual effort while keeping your mind off of current events.

Miss Marple speaks

The following reflections on morality and human nature come from Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie (New York: William Morrow, 2011):

“There is a great deal of wickedness in village life. I hope you young people will never realize how very wicked the world is.” — p. 60, in “The Bloodstained Pavement”

“In this wicked world, I’m afraid the most uncharitable assumptions are often justified.” — p. 306, “Tape-Measure Murder”

One of the reasons I’m a Universalist is that I tend to believe that there is a great deal of wickedness in the world, and really the only hope for humanity is for love to be the most powerful force in the universe.

And in the story “The Four Suspects,” Miss Marple affirms a variant of part of Hosea Ballou’s ultra-Universalist theology: that sin is punished in this life. Early in the story, Sir Henry Clithering, a character who is an “ex-Commissioner of Scotland Yard,” says:

“You say crime goes unpunished; but does it? Unpunished by the law, perhaps; but cause and effect works outside the law. To say that every crime brings its own punishment is by way of being a platitude, and yet in my opinion nothing can be truer [sic].” (p. 136)

Then towards the end of the story, the following conversation takes place between the characters of Miss Marple and Sir Henry Clithering:

“And that girl—” [Sir Henry] stopped. “She commits a cold-blooded murder and gets off scot-free!”

“Oh! no, Sir Henry,” said Miss Marple. “Not scot-free. Neither you nor I believe that. Remember what you said not long ago. No. Greta Rosen will not escape punishment. To begin with, she must be in with a very queer sort of people — blackmailers and terrorists — associates who will do her no good, and will probably bring her to a miserable end….

But the real point of this story is not whether or not evil-doers get punished; the point is that innocent people suffer because of the actions of the evil-doers. And so, Miss Marple concludes, “one mustn’t waste thoughts on the builty — it’s the innocent who matter.” In this moment, Miss Marple could almost be a Universalist: worried less about punishment of sinners than about making life better for everyone else.

A prolegomenon to ethics

Agatha Christie’s famous fictional detective Miss Marple once said:

“…The truth is, you see, that most people … are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them [by other people]. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.” — The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

Miss Marple is not quite correct. In order to get along in the world, we simply have to trust that the way other people present themselves is basically truthful; it is too time consuming to do otherwise. Nevertheless, the world is a wicked place — there is a great deal of wickedness, from big systemic problems like the lack of morals in our financial institutions, to small personal problems like the way one individual can be hurtful to another without even thinking about it.

I don’t want to deny that there is much goodness in the world, but neither do I want to deny that wickedness is exists, and is widespread.

On wickedness

I’m preparing to write a sermon on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s purposes and principles, titled “Why the Seven Principles Must Change.” I’m thinking of using one of several passages from Agatha Christie’s murder mystery A Pocketful of Rye as one of the texts on which the sermon will be based; Christie, whatever her faults may be, is fairly sound on the topic of wickedness. At this point, I think the second passage below best captures what I’m trying to say in the sermon. If you have any similar quotes that could serve as a necessary corrective to the excessive optimism of the “Seven Principles,” I’d love it if you left them in the comments.


1. Calming himself, [Inspector Neele] said, “Oh, there are other possibilities, other people who had a perfectly good motive.”

“Mr. Dubois, of course,” said Mis Marple sharply. “And that young Mr. Wright. I do so agree with you, Inspector. Wherever there is a question of gain, one has to be very suspicious. The great thing to avoid is having in any way a trustful mind.”

In spite of himself, Neele smiled.

“Always think the worst, eh?” he asked. It seemed a curious doctrine to be proceeding from this charming and fragile-looking old lady.

“Oh yes,” said Miss Marple fervently. “I always believe the worst. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.”


2. “It sounds rather cruel,” said Pat.

“Yes, my dear,” said Miss Marple, “life is cruel, I’m afraid….”


3. “…It’s very wicked, you know, to affront human dignity….”


4. “…One needs a great deal of courage to get through life….”

The joy of cars

It is fashionable among religious and political liberals to bemoan the existence of automobiles, particularly because their environmental impact. I do it all the time. Of course, if you’re like me, you’re familiar with various counter arguments that tell us why cars are not so bad as all that:– we know that suburban sprawl began long before the automobile age, and so doesn’t require automobiles — and that having automobiles was better than using horses for transportation purposes, since the exhaust put out by horses in cities is arguably more noisome and a greater public health issue than automobile exhaust, and the maltreatment of horses when they were used primarily as transportation is arguably an ethical problem as serious as that of sprawl.

However, I don’t see many of us paying attention to what might be called the cultural argument in favor of cars. This argument is presented quite well by Agatha Christie in her autobiography:

Oh, the joy that car [the first car she owned] was to me! I don’t suppose anyone nowadys could believe the difference it made to one’s life [to own a car for the first time]. To be able to go anywhere you chose; to places beyond the reach of your legs — it widened your whole horizon. One of the greatest pleasures I had out of the car was going down to Ashfield and taking mother out for drives. She enjoyed it passionately, just as I did. We went to all sorts of places — Dartmoor, the house of friends she had never been able to see because of the difficulties of transport — and the sheer joy of driving was enough for both of us. I don’t think anything has given me more pleasure, more joy of achievement, than my dear bottle-nosed Morris Cowley.

Yes, I hate suburban sprawl, and I dislike having to commute to work by car,– but I too, like Agatha Christie, love to drive. And I have found that it is no use to me personally to address the first two points without acknowledging that last point. What about you?