Reading a mystery? For class? Seriously?

This is the second week for the Capital Fellows, the graduate seminar I teach every Monday morning through the fall, September to December, and the first book I had them read was Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body? one of the wonderfully complex stories of Lord Peter Wimsey, the very amazing detective who sees and hears more than most ever imagine. It could be simply biography and bias, as in the first year of marriage Meg and I read each of Sayers’ stories aloud, enjoying every minute of mystery together, but I think it is more than that.

I am convinced that at the heart of every life, and every story, is the question, “What will you do with what you know?” From the Garden on with its Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil— what I have called an epistemological temptation with a moral heart —is the responsibility of knowledge. Human beings have stumbled their way through this in every century, in every culture.

What will we do with what we know?

And so Alfred Hitchcock came to class. I showed the last minutes of his film, “Rope,” the cinematic meditation on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a drama set in modern Manhattan with two former school boys wanting to try out what they learned from their teacher about the moral privilege of social elites— and who choose to murder a friend, simply to see if they can. Then I drew in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Rear Window,” and “I Confess,” three other Hitchcock films, each in their different ways the same story, i.e. knowing what I know, what will I do?

Because I argued that this is the oldest temptation, we spent some time thinking about that. Why is it? What is it about knowledge, and our responsibility for what we know, that is so central to human life, to human happiness, to the good life and to the good society?

Mysteries explore this relationship of knowledge to responsibility, especially murder mysteries. What is it that keeps us reading, all the way to the very end? Why do we care enough to finish? We want to know who did it, and why? A good writer like Sayers understands that, and paragraph after paragraph, page after page, the story is told until finally we see and hear, just like Lord Peter has and does. We know, finally we know who did it!

But the drama only works because we expect that there is an integral connection between knowledge and responsibility. We in fact expect that knowledge will lead us to responsibility, that everything will become clear in the end, that on the last chapter or page we will finally know who is responsible for the crime. That is the mystery, and that is the story.

And that is why we began our study with Sayers. I wanted them to see that this central theme in human life, this deepest of all questions that human beings ask and answer, is at the heart of ordinary life for ordinary people— that our best stories are this story. While its reality is theologically-weighted, philosophically-rich, and psychologically-complex, it is not an abstraction— it does not reside in the clouds, living in some ivory tower.

If we have eyes to see, we can see this dynamic woven through life for everyone everywhere, in all that we are and all that we do. From trivial matters of daily life to weighty matters of state and the world, what we do with what we know is the most important matter of all— and therefore in a program given to learning about the meaning of vocation we began with a murder mystery, because it is in and through our vocations where knowledge most fully meets responsibility, where what we know becomes incarnate in who we are and what we do.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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