Barely A Crime (novel)
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Mater et….Magistrae?

December 10, 2013 11:19 am | 4 Comments

Who is the most famous fictional Catholic detective? If I had to guess, I would guess that it was a certain Belgian layman named Hercule Poirot. Only 10% of the Christians in England-and-Wales are Roman Catholics, and only a million of those manage to get to Mass on Sundays, so let’s just say I don’t think Father Brown is quite as much the household name in his native land as is Monsieur Poirot.

Agatha Christie was not a Roman Catholic, but she was one of the bestselling writers of her generation, and Hercule Poirot is her most famous invention. The contemporary British public associates their beloved Poirot most strongly with his most recent interpreter, actor David Suchet, and Suchet plays Poirot as a very devout Catholic indeed. In his final episode Suchet’s Poirot is seen praying the rosary, and throughout his run as Poirot Suchet never loses an opportunity to point to the heavens and reference “le bon Dieu.

And it works. It works because the point is not that Poirot is a Catholic, but that he is strongly moral and a foreigner. And not only do foreigners speak funny, they are forgiven for it. Indeed, it is even a relief when they say things British people can’t. But what is charming in a foreigner is not so charming in a native. And one thing I have noticed in the UK is the British reluctance to mention God, especially the Holy Name of Jesus.

The British reluctance to mention the Holy Name of Jesus stems either from embarrassment about speaking about religion at all or from an old-fashioned British piety that treats the Holy Name as something precious that might be used out. My husband speaks of “Our Lord” and cringes whenever I, the graduate of a Canadian theology school, chirp cheerfully about +Jesus+.

If I were to teach a Creative Writing course for Catholic authors, I would blue-pencil anything I thought would make the average reader cringe, and that would include an overuse of the Holy Name in fiction. And I hope my students would take such corrections in the spirit they were meant, for I would state up front during Class One that I am a church-going Western Catholic with a strong interest in and sympathy with the Eastern Church, the Anglican communion and various Protestant denominations.

And I think that would be necessary for, in fact, quite a few people in artistic and academic circles loathe Christianity and use classrooms or stages as platforms from which to say nasty things about Catholics, other Christians and Catholic and other Christian beliefs. Educated and cultured non-Catholics in Scotland would be outraged to be associated with Protestant sectarianism (once almost as much of a problem here as in Northern Ireland), and pride themselves on having Catholic friends. But the fact is that many of them absolutely loathe Catholicism and the Roman Catholic Church and wouldn’t mind saying so in such public gatherings as a writing circle. As in my writing circle. My EX-writing circle.

Then there is also the shock factor. In my experience, young writers love to delve into the seamy side of life. They write “daringly” about sex and violence, winning applause for their linguistic dexterity in describing what nasty things they would to do those they envy. It’s not nice, and I’m not sure it’s helpful. And yet the dumbest thing I ever heard at an Open Mic was the merely corny “The soul of a girl is like a flower.” (No, it isn’t. Have you met a girl? And what kind of a flower anyway?)

My point is that the young Catholic writer needs both TRAINING and a friendly, safe environment in which to hone his or her craft. What are needed are writing groups and writing classes organized for and by practicing Catholics, not to teach theology, but to teach the art of writing. And I believe very firmly that to write seriously about a character’s devotional life is a tricky and as open to ridicule as writing about his private sexual experience. It has to be done carefully; it probably needs to be taught.

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

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4 Comments

  1. December 10, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    I believe very firmly that to write seriously about a character’s devotional life is a tricky and as open to ridicule as writing about his private sexual experience. It has to be done carefully; it probably needs to be taught.

    Hear, hear!

    There’s a weird tendency culture-wide to expose every possible subject, including the deep mysteries of life, to very open conversation in very clinical terms. It’s in everything from mommy blogs (which I won’t go near) to the way fictional characters’ deaths are commonly described (e.g., in Jurassic Park or The Hunger Games, neither of which I could bear to re-read despite their being powerful stories.) The more sensitive the topic, the more absurd the frank terminology sounds. I realize that my own hyperactive cringe is artistic rather than moral, and that not everyone feels the same way–but honestly, I think writers need to develop that super-sensitive artistic discomfort with clinical discussion of intimate matters. Literary writers certainly do. And even the best genre writers–Orson Scott Card comes to mind, and perhaps John Grisham when he’s at the top of his game–have mastered the art of letting the vulgar be vulgar and the sacred be mysterious.

  2. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 11, 2013 at 6:55 am

    I think that’s an astute observation: the cringe is artistic, not moral. As a child, I noticed that although Jane Austen and other great writers of the 19th and 20th century sometimes mentioned people going to church, they didn’t much mention what people did there, or how they prayed. And yet their novels were very moral and, indeed, my mother read her children books by such deeply Christian writers as Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as a sneaky form of evangelization.

    Some authors write beautifully and even amusingly about their characters’ relationship with God. The best funny ones I have come across so far are the “Don Camillo” stories. They which were recommended to me by a non-Catholic who loved them. Don Camillo’s creator, Giovannino Guareschi, was a Catholic, very anti-Communist, Italian journalist.

    I think the secret to his excellent handling of Don Camillo’s prayer life is that he underscores Don Camillo’s faults and temptations (which are more along the lines of stealing a hunting dog or beating up the local leading communist than anything sexual). Also, he was very matter of fact about Don Camillo’s prayers. Don Camillo just prayed as he thought.

  3. December 11, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    When people are reluctant to admit of God I simply change His name to Energy. He is the Essence of Love,Life and Being. We are made in His image,have our breath from His breath. Infinite Energy, Eternal Energy was always “I am who I am”. Call Him Allah, God, Yahweh HE is WHO IS.
    from eternity. We cannot get away from this reality, we can deny it in all sincerity but Truth denied still remains Truth.
    Made in His image means, we have the possibility to be ONE with Him. That breath He breathed in us was/is His Spirit, implanted in our deepest inner self, rending us capable to know right from wrong yet with the fundamental gift of freedom of choice as were the first human creation. Eternal Energy is not giving us emotional blackmail,Loving Energy is calling us to be one with Him. He became a human being to show us the way and ultimately gave Himself His human being to redeem our weaknesses and pay the price of our wrongs to open His Eternal realm for His creation.

  4. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 12, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    It’s not a question of admitting God, it’s a question of writing about people of faith without sounding preachy. Fiction-writing requires a different set of tools from the ones we use for apologetics or other kinds of prose non-fiction. It is interesting how the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. praised God through descriptions of nature and people.He is considered one of the finest poets in English of the 20th century, and yet he was also a deeply faithful Catholic priest.

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