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There can be no detecting in a world that we can’t understand.

What I’m Reading: On Teaching and Detective Fiction

This is the first post in the What I’m Reading series, where faculty share their thoughts on the literature they tackle in their spare time. Enjoy!

This summer has been the first in a while where I have not been anticipating a pretty good-sized teaching load come the fall (I won’t let it happen again). Because of this, I’ve had time to read for pleasure in a way that I haven’t since the few years between grad school and becoming a teacher. Thanks to the inspiration of my sister, I decided to take up reading detective fiction. I’m an unapologetic book snob, and so, having read a good amount of Sherlock Holmes before, and because of my own passionate love of Gaudy Night, I decided to start with the two I’d heard were the best: Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie.

Having started with Sayers I got committed, and have read eight of her eleven novels (two of the remainder are currently sitting on my night stand), and the collection of all her short stories about the lovable and brilliant Lord Peter Wimsey (I’ve read two Agatha Christie novels along the way, both delightful).

Meanwhile, desperately seeking some order and quiet on a road trip with my fiancé David and his identical twin brother, I turned to sudoku, a number puzzle I’d previously found hopelessly hard and dull. David walked me through my first two games and after that I was hooked. I liked knowing that the solution was right before you and logically obvious; all you had to do was see it for yourself.

It wasn’t until this last week that I realized the similarity between my two summer hobbies. Both logic puzzles and good detective fiction assert the same thing: the world is orderly and knowable, and our job is simply to discover it.

In 1928, Willard Huntington Wright, under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine, wrote twenty rules of detective fiction, to be shortened the next year into ten by Ronald Knox. Through rules eschewing supernatural causes, secret chambers, and unknown poisons, among other things, both writers insist that “every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries” must present a story that any intelligent reader has a possibility of solving for themselves. Every essential clue must be presented, every real suspect known, and the thoughts of the detective clear as he sorts through his evidence (hence the almost universal inclusion of a Dr. Watson—a reasonably intelligent but not brilliant friend our detective hero can share his thoughts with naturally, and who can ask the questions the reader might have).

The reason for these rules is, I think, fairly simple. There can be no detecting in a world that we can’t understand. If the world around us is entirely opaque or chaotic, then the key elements of detection would be lost. The rules laid down by Wright and Knox ensure that the fictional world of the detective novel is orderly and knowable. I think we as Christians—and teachers or parents—have to be the ones to assert that the real world is exactly the same way: it can be courageously investigated and explored, and answers discovered.

I want to be radically committed to the idea that the world is worth exploring; every child understands this, but sometimes adults and older students start to fear, or lose enthusiasm for the endeavor. As teachers, our job is simple in one sense. We must set the world—in all its glory and mystery and order and beauty—before our students, and help them discover the joy of exploration, creativity, and knowing things.

Detectives search because they care about truth, and believe they can find answers. We must teach for exactly the same reasons.

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