“Terrapin” is “a Catholic mystery” that “offers less genre writing than art”

Terrapin: A Mystery (also in electronic book format)
By T.M. Doran
Ignatius Press, 2012
392 pp., $19.95
ISBN: 978-1-58617-721-8

Reviewed by Kenneth Colston

From the July/August 2013 issue of St. Austin Review.

Is there such a genre as the Christian mystery? W.H. Auden, who considered himself a Christian, thought that the “detective story”, to which he said he was addicted as a man might be addicted to tobacco or alcohol, was partially isomorphic with the Christian story: it begins in a closed milieu of innocence, is disturbed by a crime against god and society, and is restored to a garden of innocence by a celibate in a state of grace. This dramatic arc, Auden maintains, is also that of Aristotelian tragedy, moving from a peaceful state (false innocence), to murder (revelation of presence of guilt), false clues (false location of guilt), solution (location of real guilt), arrest (catharthis), and back to peaceful state (true innocence). It includes a “double peripeteia”, or two reversals of fortune, one from apparent guilt to innocence (the suspects), and one from apparent innocence to guilt (the murderer). auden’s short but seminal analysis, “The Guilty Vicarage” (Harper’s Weekly, May 1948) exposes five elements of the mystery genre as a way of shedding light on the function of mystery versus the function of art, which true detective stories, he insists, are not.

The first element is the milieu, the closed society in a state of grace: the groves of academe, the country village, the bourgeois train car or drawing room—not, however, a monastery, because the requirement of confession threatens exposure and undermines innocence, which may be why, Auden speculates, detective stories flourish more in predominantly Protestant countries. the second element, the victim, must be someone who is bad enough to involve everyone in suspicion but good enough to make everyone feel guilty: “the best victim is the negative Father or Mother Image”. The third element is the murderer, “the rebel who claims the right to be omnipotent”, through concealed “demonic pride”, and whose execution, in a satisfying mystery, is “an act of atonement”. The fourth element, the suspects, are guilty not of the murder but of something real that they wish to hide: crimes against God and neighbor or against God alone, a “hybris of intellect or innocence”, a lack of faith in another suspect. The fifth element is the detective, and Auden says that there have only been three completely satisfactory ones, each of which embodies a perennial type: Sherlock Holmes, the scientific seeker of neutral truth; Inspector French, the Scotland Yard yeoman whose dutiful sacrifice on behalf of society is total; and Father Brown, whose compassionate care of souls is paramount. These five elements appeal to a class of readers immune to most escape literature, doctors, lawyers, artists, scientists, or other professionals who “suffer from a sense of sin”, which “means to feel guilty at there being an ethical choice to make, a guilt which, however ‘good’ I may become, remains unchanged. As St. Paul says, ‘except I had known the law, I had not known sin.’ … The phantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law.”

I draw upon Auden because I found it curious that Ignatius Press, known mainly for its service to orthodox Roman Catholic readers of theology, would be publishing a whodunit, and that StAR, whose mission is to reclaim the culture for the church, would wish the book reviewed. Is there an inherent relationship between Christianity and mystery writing? Both obviously search for justice and truth, but is there a deeper relationship?

Terrapin conforms to some of Auden’s strict categories, but also, as Auden says of Raymond Chandler, offers less genre writing than art. The setup is simple but arresting. Four men who have been best buddies since childhood reunite for a weekend and a Detroit Tigers baseball game. They drink a little too much after the game; the next morning, three of them wake up in their hotel room to find the fourth dead. Rather than report it immediately to the police, they discuss what to do over breakfast, and when they return to the room the body is gone. Was their friend Greg Pace really dead, or was he playing a trick? The central consciousness is not a detective but a mystery writer, Dennis Cole, one of the four, and through his point of view the entire novel moves back and forth between the hours and days following the possible crime and vivid flashbacks to the friends’ 1960s and 1970s not-so-innocent childhood spent in Terrapin Township, a crabgrass suburb of Detroit.

The portrait of this closed milieu of only apparent innocence, the working-class neighborhood, is the strongest embodiment of Auden’s theory and the greatest achievement of Doran’s creation. Auden writes that the natural milieu should be “the Great Good place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do or there will be a suspicion of illgotten gains) than the slum.” Terrapin is peopled with memorable, good but flawed or problem-plagued characters who are known to the neighborhood: Dennis’ father T. A., a Korean War veteran, a widower, a machinist by day and a reader of philosophy, theology, and (of course) mysteries by night, a wise moral tolerant Atticus Finch figure; Jenny Holm, a beautiful but disturbed and sexually frustrated unmarried woman whose children have been taken away from her; Alvin, a black man who marries a white woman and becomes the stepfather to a rebellious teenager; and Greg’s and Dennis’s other companions, Ben, Tony, and Lori, who accompany them on their increasingly dangerous boyish adventures. These generously offered flashbacks, which constitute the bulk of the book and slowly provide not only the background but also the solution to the crime, have the ring of observed artistic truth and are much richer than the present-time mystery. The closely knit American neighborhood, when boys and girls played kick-the-can freely in alleys and backyards and side streets, their heads not glued to screens nor their ears plugged to speakers, looking to the skies and observing their neighbors and creating adventure and learning from adults and scrapes to become moral beings through games that become less and less innocent, from digging frogs out of muddy ponds to voyeurism and breaking and entering—this former communio personarum of parenting adults and observant children, neither innocent nor perverse, has probably become a thing of the past. With air-conditioning and year-round storm windows and huge yards, who overhears the secrets next door, let alone peeks in when the owners are out or sits up with them until two in the morning when cancer strikes? Doran depicts a lost world of communal friendship. How can one learn to love one’s neighbor when the neighborhood has been replaced by video games and hand-held devices and other instruments of electronic isolation?

Nothing in the novel is overtly or boisterously Catholic, not even the protagonist’s religious Augustine-reading father, but it is, in a sense, a Catholic mystery, with a twinge of Jansenism in the understanding of the sinful soul that lies habitually, holds grudges indefinitely, envies goodness constantly, retains guilt endlessly, and plots revenge methodically. But just a twinge, for grace can be brought out even of murder.

Kenneth Colston is a retired teacher of languages who resides in St. Louis. His articles have appeared in New Oxford Review, LOGOS: a Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Commonweal, Catholic Digest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and many secular newspapers and journals.

From the July/August 2013 issue of St. Austin Review. Learn more or subscribe to StAR at St. Austin Review.

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