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The Childlike Appeal of Murder Mysteries

15 Jul

The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies.
~ G.K. Chesterton

“Just what kind of movies do you like?”

We were sitting around the dinner table discussing cinematic tastes. Katharine, my youngest, was being a bit evasive; Benedict, my oldest, was drawing her out.

Kath paused, looked straight at Ben, and then blurted, “I like murders.”

Maybe not the answer you’d expect from a 12-year-old, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been treating my kids to a steady summer diet of sleuthing and homicide. First it was a DVD season of “Murder She Wrote” from the library, and then on to Agatha Christie – Miss Marple, yes, but especially the ITV version of her Belgian eccentric, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet). His accent and fastidiousness have grown on us, along with the wide-eyed, perpetual bewilderment of his sidekick, Captain Hastings.

Our routine involves popping in the disc, getting settled with our snacks, and then launching into speculation as soon as the principals start showing up on the screen. Often, I’m trying to finish up the dinner dishes as the proceedings commence. “Is there a corpse yet?” I’ll call out from the kitchen.

“Nope, not yet,” Kath or somebody calls back. “But hurry – there’ll be one soon!”

By definition, murder mysteries will have a victim – at least one, sometimes more. The murder method also varies: a stabbing here, an electrocution there, gunshots, poisons, blunt trauma – who knows? Regardless of how or how many, death sets the stage – it’s the unquestioned given, the backdrop before which the narrative unfolds.

Yet, the TV murder mysteries we enjoy don’t involve anything grisly or shocking. These aren’t slasher flicks, so the deed itself is a muted part of the drama. When it’s over and done with, we get to the real fun: joining up with the sleuths to solve the crime. We gasp and laugh, talk to the screen and each other, and amend our conjectures along the way – sometimes twice, sometimes more. By tale’s end, the family score is tallied – who was right, who was wrong – and we head off to bed.

Sweet dreams!

That might sound a bit weird, but my follow-up with Kath after dinner confirmed my intuition that our familial enjoyment of the genre was pretty healthy. “Why do you like murder?” I asked.

“I like guessing who’s going to be killed – and who’s the killer,” Kath explained. “I don’t like killing, but I like figuring it out – it’s a puzzle, and the obvious ones are never right.”

In this, Kath instinctively paid tribute to Chesterton’s observation that “mysterious murders belong to the grand and joyful company of the things called jokes,” and kids love jokes. A good joke, like a good mystery, fools us. We fall for an unseen juxtaposition or association that both surprises and satisfies.

Chesterton further argues that a mystery is like

a toy, a thing that children ‘pretend’ with…. From this it follows that the reader, who is a simple child and therefore very wide awake, is conscious not only of the toy but of the invisible playmate who is the maker of the toy, and the author of the trick.

And since the “innocent child is very sharp and not a little suspicious,” a good mystery creator will gift his audience an experience that simultaneously confounds and confirms. It’ll make sense in the end, no matter how bewildering the preceding series of events. “The climax must not be only the bursting of a bubble,” Chesterton insists, “but rather the breaking of a dawn.”

This enlightenment was referenced by Katharine in a further reflection on her murder mystery enthusiasm. “And I like seeing the bad guy get caught,” she said, adding this astute assessment: “It’s always money – always greed. I want money, too, but I’m not going to kill for it.” Although her nuanced insight regarding mammon and avarice made me beam with paternal pride, I was especially alert to her appreciation of justice served. Unlike some modern thrillers and horror films, we expect – no, we demand – that traditional murder mysteries have a happy ending: the good guys get the bad guys, and the bad guys are held accountable.

Here, too, Kath’s comments made me think of Chesterton, but this time it was his splendid defense of fairy tales. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination,” he writes. “What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” There’s a big difference between fairy tales and mysteries, I know, but I think there’s an edifying overlap between St. George and Hercule Poirot. Whether it’s a monster or a murderer, the graphic depiction of its sure defeat reinforces the idea, in Chesterton’s words, “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

By accompanying our teens and pre-teens into the moral universe of murder mysteries, whether on the screen or on the page, we foster their grasp of important catechetical truths: that God brings order out of chaos, that good triumphs over evil, and that death is never, ever the end of the story.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Our Lady of Good Help

14 Jul

“Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”

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Of Gerrymanders, Brain Death, and Birth Control

7 Jul

“The majority can often be wrong.”
~ Charlan Nemeth

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The Communion Fast and Eucharistic Rapport

1 Jul

“Frequent Communion is not magic.”
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

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A Bibliochaotic Encounter with 3 Celtic “M” Saints

24 Jun

“There is nothing Celtic about having legends.
It is merely human.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

“When are we going to get rid of some of these books?” is the complaint I hear from time to time at my house. “We’ll never read them all.” Yes, I know, that’s the point! There will always be something to read, always a new find, always something to surprise and delight.

I hear that complaint a lot, especially from my older kids. They grew up with our bibliochaotic interior decorating scheme, but they’ve come to appreciate that it’s nowhere near normative or typical – that it’s not even an infrequent alternative. Most of their friends don’t live with overflowing bookcases in every room; most families of their acquaintance don’t double-shelve their volumes to accommodate them all. Actually, even the word “most” there is generous. The truth is that their domestic experience of bookish squalor is pretty extraordinary.

But no apologies here. I’ve always been a big believer in quantity over quality when it comes to our home library. That’s the essential approach of big academic libraries, isn’t it? And the Library of Congress? So why should it be any different at home? It seems like our family book collections shouldn’t just be showcases for favorites, but more like dense jungles of the unfamiliar and surprising in which our kids can get lost, explore, and make discoveries of their own. A decent library less a museum than a magical meeting place.

And that goes for the grown-ups as well.

Case in point: I was rooting around in the living room for something or other recently, and there in the stacks was a bright orange picture book I’d never seen before – or else I don’t remember ever seeing it before. I snagged it off the shelf: The Saint and His Bees (2013), written by Dessi Jackson and illustrated by Claire Brandenburg. Where did it come from? How did we acquire it? Who knows, but here it was in my hands – providence! Serendipity!

The magic caught me and I dove in.

The book relates the tale of St. Modomnoc, a 6th-century Irish monk who studied in Wales under St. David, who put the young novice in charge of the community’s hives. Modomnoc’s enthusiasm for his vocation was such that he eagerly acquiesced to David’s directive and threw himself into his apiary role – something his skittish confreres in the Welsh community were all too happy to surrender to him.

The young monk and his bees developed a strong mutual affection, and when it came time for Modomnoc to return to his Irish monastery, the bees insisted on accompanying him. According to Jackson’s retelling, St. David gave way to the inevitable and happily bestowed his blessing on the departing Modomnoc and his buzzing friends. It’s the legendary flipside to St. Patrick’s role in ridding the island of snakes, for Modomnoc is credited with introducing the honey-producing insects to the Emerald Isle.

Reading through The Saint and His Bees was time well spent. It’s an edifying tale well told, and Brandenburg’s rough-cut illustrations capture the story’s primitive monastic ethos perfectly. Besides, I’d never heard of St. Modomnoc before, and I’m anxious to share his history with my beekeeping friends. Moreover, I made a mental note about this saint’s fearlessness in obedience and embrace of duty – and the unseen ramifications of such courage. With that in mind, I decided to track down a bit more about this new holy friend.

Since I was in a library frame of mind, I turned to the stacks instead of a screen, and I pulled down David Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints (5th ed., 2003). Not surprisingly, the entry on St. Modomnoc confirmed the basic outline of Jackson’s narrative, but there was no additional information – and so my eye wandered on the page.

More providence – more serendipity. More magic and meeting.

First, my attention was drawn to St. Modan, the entry immediately preceding St. Modomnoc. Modan, too, was a Celtic monk that hailed from the 6th century, but his life centered on Scotland instead of Ireland and Wales. It seems that St. Modan was given to long hours of prayer and solitude, but that didn’t prevent his being pressed into abbatial service at Dryburgh. He also had a knack for coaxing the rains during times of drought – which is ironic since his name means “little flame.”

Modan’s meteorological miracles led to some confusing associations with an 8th-century Scottish saint and bishop of the same name. The latter’s feast is observed on November 14, and on that date in Fraserburgh, according to Farmer’s Dictionary, “his silver head-relic was formerly carried in procession to bring down rain or improve the weather in other ways.”

Not exactly the honey-coated legacy of St. Modomnoc, but holy beggars can’t be choosers.

After Modan, I scanned the page for other curious hagiographic tidbits, and I came across the story of St. Mochta, another Irish abbot, but this time from the 5th century. “Reputed to be of British origin and to have become a disciple of Patrick in Ireland,” Farmer writes, “he is supposed to have been educated and consecrated bishop in Rome.” Not only was Mochta a close collaborator of St. Patrick, he is said to have founded a celebrated monastery at Louth.

But what I found especially diverting was a bit of Mochta lore from Farmer – that the saint “lived for 300 years because he doubted the ages of the Old Testament patriarchs.” Now, whether that actually happened or not is less important than the preservation of the suggestion that it had happened. I couldn’t help smiling when I read it. “It would be just like God to do something like that,” I thought to myself. “And it’s so great that the Irish would keep such a yarn alive over the centuries.” It’s an example of the kind of weirdness in our traditions that I’ve always found invigorating as a Catholic convert – not only diverting, but also reassuring. A religion of 300 yearlong object lessons, not to mention Pied Piper beekeepers and rainmaking relics, is a religion that enraptures and enthralls, and can accommodate even the likes of me.

The same goes for a voluminous pandemonium. How else would I have met such fascinating saints? We are blessed in our bookish bedlam.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Summery Gift of ‘The Snowman’

10 Jun

“I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”
~ Dylan Thomas

Now that the thermometer has popped into the nineties a couple times, it’s summer. Forget the calendar. There’s sunshine and languid afternoons and a blessed freedom to do nothing, to expect nothing. It’s an ideal moment for a tribute to Raymond Briggs’s exquisite picture book, The Snowman (1978).

And when I say picture book, I mean picture book, for Briggs tells an emotionally rich tale without a single word. It’s the tale of a boy and his snowman – their friendship and adventures – and it’s related through a series of deceptively simple drawings. Despite their plainness and subdued colors, those drawings convey a narrative depth that is profoundly moving, and they subtly induce the reader to concoct and supply the missing dialogue – either silently in our heads or, as you’d find with your youngest readers, out loud. It’s a turnabout from what usually happens with storytelling, where words come first and mental images follow. To enter the world of The Snowman is to enter a world in which words are blessedly optional – a rare treat in our noisy age.

In 1982, Briggs’s genius on the page was more or less faithfully translated to the screen in an Oscar-nominated Christmas classic. Ironically, it’s the film’s yuletide theme that constitutes the “less” part of that translation, for there’s no Santa or Christmas tree in The Snowman book. In fact, the author has complained that the holiday special completely obscures his book’s themes of life and loss, death and grief. “The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die,” Briggs has said. “There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.”

Even so, the animated feature does fundamentally follow the book’s tacit storytelling approach. The wintry escapade is marvelously related by means of a gentle quickening of Briggs’s artwork, and then his art is seamlessly integrated with a similarly gentle score by Howard Blake. There are only two verbal exceptions. The first is the author’s placid introductory voiceover. “The whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness,” Briggs murmurs as he tramps across a frozen landscape. “It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the Snowman.” (Later editions of the film replace Briggs with David Bowie doing a riff on the author’s preamble. Stick with the original.)

The second exception is “Walking in the Air,” a lilting, lyrical song – almost a hymn – that attends a spectacular flight sequence. Performed by a St. Paul’s Cathedral choir boy, Peter Auty, the song is lovely and unobtrusive – a delicate and welcome departure from the mute narrative. Auty’s voice is pure and ethereal, and he trills his Rs as he would for a Cambridge Lessons and Carols service. It’s a numinous performance, and it has been looping in the back of my thoughts of late, prompting this tribute.

But why now? Why snow and snowmen in this season of swimsuits and sunscreen? It can’t be a latent winter-envy, because I love summer’s heat and humidity, and I start eagerly looking forward to it as soon as January rears its ugly wind-chill head.

Wisely, I turned to Katharine, my twelve-year-old, for insight. “Do you know that Christmas video, The Snowman?”

“Of course,” she replied.

“What do you remember about it?” I asked. “What do you remember liking about it?”

Kath didn’t hesitate. “I like the monologue at the beginning,” she said (I nodded in agreement), “and the music. It’s so peaceful, and the music and pictures go together.” She elaborated further. “It’s like that scene in Ernest and Celestine, where Ernest plays the violin and Celestine draws the seasons.”

She was referring to another family favorite, a 2012 French production about a kindly bear and an artistic mouse. It, too, was nominated for an Academy Award, and it, too, tells a story of friendship and adventure.

I hunted it down in our DVD collection and fast-forwarded it to the scene Kath mentioned. The snow is piled high outside, and Celestine is painting her vision of the scene on cloth. She holds up the completed work to Ernest and announces, “Now I present to you ‘winter.’” Ernest smiles, lifts the violin to his chin, and replies, “If it was a song, it would sound just like this.”

Ernest and Celestine is far from being wordless like The Snowman, but for the duration of this particular scene, it perfectly captures the same spirit – just as Katharine suggested. Celestine’s creative two-dimensional interpretation of winter, followed by additional painted images of spring and summer, are simultaneously expressed by Ernest’s impromptu accompaniment. No speech is necessary. The passage of time and the contentment of a close relationship are more than adequately communicated by the shared and integrated media. There’s grace and peace.

It’s the grace and peace that I associate with summer’s slowness and calm. Like Brigg’s snow story, and the wordless interlude of Ernest and Celestine, summer fosters leisurely quiet and reflection. It’s a lifegiving opportunity for wonder and basking in presence. When time and duty allow in the months ahead, shut out the streaming noise, and join me in giving in to the season. The adventure of rumination awaits.
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An Extended Circle

7 Jun

“Remember when we dropped him off in the circle
that first day?”

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