Friday, November 20, 2015

C.S. Lewis, detective

Richards, Kel. The Corpse in the Cellar: a 1930s Murder Mystery, and The Country House Murders: a 1930s Murder Mystery. London: Marylebone House, 2015.

C.S. Lewis as detective? Yes, it's true; or, rather, it's fictional. The fad for enlisting real people, preferably deceased authors, as amateur sleuths in mystery novels has reached the Inklings. Kel Richards, an Australian radio broadcaster and crime novelist, and also the author of a translation of the Bible into Australian vernacular, is undertaking a series of classic "cozy" 1930s-style murder mysteries with "Jack" Lewis interweaving detecting with conversations about mere Christianity. The British publisher is an imprint of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, so the apologetics are intended as the real point.

The narrator is a fictional character named Tom Morris, a former student of Lewis's at Oxford who in the first book accompanies Jack and his brother Warren on a walking tour in the summer of 1933 in a fictional area somewhere in England. Reference to nearby Cambridgeshire at the start of the first book implies we're in East Anglia, but the presence of moors and seaside cliffs later on and in the second book, which is set in the same area a year later, make me more doubtful.

Tom is an atheist, and, in breaks between bouts of detecting, Lewis responds to his skepticism about the value of religion, in the first book, and Christian beliefs about death and immortality, in the second. Richards is highly adept at condensing Lewis's apologetics and casting them into dialogue form that makes believable Lewisian exchanges. His understanding of and ability to convey the basic points of Lewis's thinking are actually superior to those of some non-fiction writers of Lewis apologetics manqué; I name no names.

Richards is also clearly familiar with Lewis's biography and the breadth of Lewis's oeuvre, filtering facts from these in unobtrusively. For instance, in the second book, in answer to Tom's question as to what he thinks Hell is like, Lewis outlines the concept of The Great Divorce, a book he wouldn't write for another dozen years. Of course Richards says nothing about that book, leaving it to the reader to recognize it. Nor is there an explanation of an allusion showing that Lewis in this book has already read Tolkien's yet-unpublished The Hobbit.

This is all delightful and should be most satisfactory to Lewis fans. The problem is that these conversations don't mesh with the conventions of the "cozy" 1930s-style murder mystery. They function as digressions from the plot, even in the second book where Tom himself is the chief suspect, so a discussion of the fate of the soul after death should be of considerable interest to a man facing a possible capital murder charge and fretting terribly about it. Based as they are on Lewis's apologetics, the conversations seem a little airy for the circumstances.

More serious is the way that Lewis can discuss the Christian view of the immortal soul in one chapter and show almost total lack of interest in the immortal soul of a murder victim in the next, nor for that of the culprit when finally caught at the end. (Lord Peter Wimsey, in the Dorothy L. Sayers novels, does not forget to concern himself with his culprits.) One of the conventions of the "cozy" is that the initial murder victim should be someone whom the other characters dislike intensely. This convention, which Richards follows precisely, serves two plot functions: one is to give everyone a motive for murder, and the other is to prevent the reader from being distracted by sympathy for the victim. A novel featuring grieving over a death would be a different kind of story. The victim in a "cozy" is not a human being, but serves the sole function of a plot point to kick off a puzzle. And sleuth Lewis in these novels must follow that convention too.

In the course of each story, a second murder occurs – this is telegraphed in the second book by the plural in the title – and this ratchets up the tension over the course of Richards' extremely readable and entertaining prose. Lewis, of course, eventually solves both cases. These explanations are exceedingly improbable, but Richards has followed the "cozy" plot convention of coming up with something that's possible physically, if not in other respects, and which will not have occurred to the reader. While I doubt the real-life Lewis's capacity to serve as such a sleuth – he was in some ways very unworldly – it is, allowing for the conventions of the "cozy," a believable portrait of what he would be like if he did.

Despite the references to other Inklings whom Lewis already knew at this point in his life, none appear onstage except Warren in the first book. (In the second book, Jack comes to the country house where Tom is working as a librarian at Tom's urgent request to defend him from the murder charge.) Warren is depicted as a pleasant sidekick; he likes his drink, but he is not the maniacal dipsomaniac described in some recent biographies. Warren also appears in a third book, The Floating Body (scheduled to appear in the UK in 2016), also set in a fictional locale.

All three books originally appeared in Australia under different titles: C.S. Lewis and the Body in the Basement, C.S. Lewis and the Country House Murders, and The Floating Corpse. The author reports that he's recently returned from a trip to Oxford researching the fourth book in the series, The Sinister Student, which will feature the rest of the Inklings. Although these are light novels without – apologetics apart – the weight or seriousness of Sayers at her best, I enjoyed reading them, and am looking forward to the succeeding volumes.

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