Seems a long time ago now, and yet there were years in my life when I was not married to Meg. But then on a wonderful day in August of 1976, we were, and the woman that I love to love became my wife.
That first year of marriage we read all of Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries aloud. From Whose Body? to Gaudy Night to Strong Poison and more, we read them all. I noticed two things: 1) we wanted to spend together because 2) we couldn’t wait to find out “who dunnit?”
This past week as we drove back from Colorado we listened to Whose Body? on a download from the library, and while remembering the contours of the story, the details were new again. Sayers was a remarkably gifted person: a scholar, an essayist, a novelist, and playwright (for the BBC). Given the work that I do these days, I would say to any who needed to know that her essay, “Why Work?” is as good as anything by anyone at anytime.
But it is her mysteries that drew me in as made our way across America over the last few days. At the heart of a good story is always the responsibility of knowledge, and perhaps that is especially true of mysteries. Think of the best stories of Shakespeare, e.g. Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing? Now that I know, what will I do? Sometimes the consequences are tragic, and we groan; sometimes they seem so, but in the end we laugh.
Alfred Hitchcock made a career from this reality. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is the most explicit, but “Rear Window” and “Rope” are equally built out of the same dynamic. Rooted in every human heart is the most primordial of questions, “What will you do with what you know?” Think about the strangely-named Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, an epistemological temptation with a moral heart if ever there was one—and the temptation, with its question, echoes across history, from the least consequential choices we make, to the most profound and far-reaching.
Loving flowers of every kind, but knowing what I know of my geography and my yard, which ones will I plant this year? Seeing a hundred kinds of cereal in the grocery store aisle, which one will I buy? Having met many women, whom will I choose to marry? Now that I know you, can I love you? Now knowing what I know about a political decision, how will I vote? Seeing the stories of crisis in Egypt, or wherever the heartbreak is this week, what am I to do? From small to large, the questions are ours, human beings that we are.
In Whose Body? the matter of knowledge, and our responsibility threads it way through the story, from a bizarre murder to the slow discovery by Lord Peter Wimsey of motives by someone who at first seemed to have no motive– until we began to know what the suspected murderer knew, and cared about, in the sordid, skewed way of a murderer’s heart when one’s passions become realized. First it is Wimsey who must decide to act on what he knows, understanding the tragic consequences for all, and then finally it is hearing from the distinguished surgeon as he explains the reasons for the murder, which not surprisingly are bound up with, “After I knew this, I decided to do this, angry as I was—and finally I had my chance to murder someone that I had long despised.”
Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve we all are, still answering that first question, “What will you do with what you know?” The best stories, and therefore the truest stories, always tell the truth about the human condition, about your heart and mine. Working it out is never easy, as every one of us falls short, stumbling along, longing for grace as we are. But it is what makes us human, in our glory and our shame.