Murder Mystery Spirituality

Matthew 5:21-26

“You have heard it said, don’t commit murder….”  Of course, you have heard that said because it is in the Ten Commandments. Even if you haven’t read much of the Bible, you can probably name eight of the ten commandments. It’s easy to forget a couple, like don’t worship graven images. I always forget, “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” but not because I like to swear. But I bet “don’t commit murder” is at the top of the commandments you remember. After all, we are fascinated with murder. Reading murder mysteries, watching police procedural shows, and playing murder mystery games are great entertainment. I’m an enthusiastic fan because mystery writers show me the world and teach me things while entertaining me.

There are so many genres of murder mysteries. Lisa Scottelini explores mafia corruption in Philadelphia and bears witness to the trials of a woman detective.  Laura Lipmann probes the dirty politics of sports stadiums and development in Baltimore. I’m an international mystery fan. Henning Mankell pioneered Nordic Noir with his great detective novels uncovering sex trafficking, the challenges of immigration, and Russian mafia influence in Norway. I’m not as big a fan of the creepy psychodrama stuff by Steig Larson, like “The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo.”

You can read Scottish and Celtic Noir. Dervia McTiernan and Tana French have Dublin covered. You can take a trip to Venice with Donna Leon’s series, which brings Italian history, art, climate change, and great food to the forefront. I only started Elizabeth George last year, and I have many of her 800-page Inspector Linley mysteries to anticipate.

My favorites include the numerous mysteries where a clergyperson is the leading crime solver. Father Brown mysteries started the genre, but I have learned some church history from Sister Fidelma and Brother Caedfel and Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose.”  Julia Spenser-Fleming wrote a great series about a woman who is an Episcopal priest who had been an army helicopter pilot who solves mysteries in upstate New York. All Spenser-Flemming books start with words of hymns like “In Bleak Midwinter” and “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.”  (Who knew hymns make such good murder titles?). I can’t leave out the PBS series “Grantham,” and I realize that some of the best portrayals of clergy in popular culture are in murder mysteries.

Murder mysteries are not just escapist entertainment. These stories connect me to hope for justice and fairness in the world. Most murders get solved in the end. In the real world, justice gets denied, the law becomes one more tool of the powerful, and accountability is only for some and not others. I enjoy a few hours where the heroic efforts of a detective won’t let evil triumph over the good. My favorite characters give me hope that there are many unknown heroes quietly doing their good work. As I go on their adventure, I feel that maybe my work matters too.

The best characters are not superheroes with special powers. They are humans who struggle as we struggle. They take their work home with them and have troubled marriages. They grapple with the trauma that goes with the job or struggle with alcoholism.   They must face their flaws and fears to get to the truth, be tempted to cut corners, take the law into their own hands, falsify evidence, avoid the facts to get a promotion or protect corrupt police or politicians. Doing the right thing does not come easy, which is why we admire the main character. (Don’t worry, I still have “though shalt not commit murder, nor curse your sibling” in my theological sites, but first, I must talk about Chief Inspector Gamache.)

Armand Gamache is my favorite central character in Louis Penney’s novels set in Quebec. Like many outstanding detectives, he is intelligent, observant, thinks outside the box, and has the courage of his convictions. He faces the challenges of catching murder masterminds, bureaucracy, danger, and complicated trails of clues. But Gamache is also human. He is one of the few who has a good marriage, shows kindness, and is aware of his vulnerability, especially around his love for family. His heart aches when he must send his son-in-law, also a detective, into danger, knowing his daughter could become a widow. Gamache reads and quotes poetry at work but doesn’t take any crap from fools.

These traits make Gamache an expert on the motivations of the human soul. Gamache knows that solving a murder is more than just collecting fingerprints and hair samples. It’s all about the motive. In one story, he is at a crime scene, and his son-in-law is trying to determine the time of death. “I estimate the trigger was pulled between 1:00 and 1:30 AM,” he says. “The murder didn’t happen when the trigger was pulled,” Gamache says. “The murder started further back when a resentment was given oxygen. Jealousy was allowed to become a fire of outrage. Greed over-road human compassion. That was the time when the murder began.”  (I have no idea which story this was in, so just go with me here!).

Gamache sounds like St. Thomas Aquinas outlining the dangers of the Seven Deadly Sins. The outward action of murder, lying, stealing, or whatever, begins with an inward attitude of the heart gone bad. If you watched “Breaking Bad,” you saw how a high school science teacher whose life is falling apart became a violent drug lord. Murder often has a long fuse that could easily be stopped early on, but over time attitudes of the heart break bad, and turn to violence and destruction. The best detective novels take us on a journey through all the suspects who have a motive, a personal dislike, a financial interest, a jealousy. We all have these things. But the murderer is the one who let the little darkness grow until it controlled them.

This moral slippage is what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. You have heard it said, thou shalt not commit murder, but I say that if you curse your brother, you are in danger of hellfire. We have all said unkind things, not just to people who are jerks but especially to people whom we love. Jesus is not trying to set up an impossible moral standard for us. He is not telling us we must be perfect or we are going to Hell. I think Jesus is being pragmatic. He knows what most mystery writers know. The evil we do starts small and can grow enormous, so deal with it quickly before you break bad.

This truth isn’t abstract. The day after I was ordained, I went to the church where I was Associate Pastor in Providence, Rhode Island. The morning headlines revealed a family from my church had been kidnapped and likely murdered. Ernie, Alice, and their eight-year-old daughter Emily were later discovered in a shallow grave. My first pastoral duty was to meet with the Sunday School kids and process how they were dealing with the death of their classmate. (One more thing I didn’t learn in seminary.).

The murderer was a member of the neighboring UCC Church in Barrington. Chris Hightower was a Sunday School teacher, a soccer coach, and a dedicated father to the outer world. But he had financial troubles. He was a commodities trader and took huge risks that broke him. Ernie Brendle was a friend and loaned him $10,000 to help him get his business on its feet, but he wanted his original sum back. When Chris lost it all, Ernie filed a complaint, and Chris’s trading license was revoked. Chris kidnapped the family, made Ernie sign a retraction, then killed them all and made up a story that the mafia was involved.

Both churches were devastated that such a monstrous thing could happen in our relatively affluent communities by someone in a position of trust, even in church. Some people dealt with this by saying Chris was a monster. The Sr. Pastor told me in the hospital parking lot that Chris was one of the meanest men he had ever met. I was just out of seminary and didn’t have the courage to say, “Why was he teaching Sunday School then?”

This murder was featured in a 2017 TV series, “World’s Most Evil Killers.”  A detective who worked the case said this about the murderer:

“He would give you the creeps, no humanity at all. You look into their eyes, and you don’t see a soul. There is just nothing there. It is just hard-core evil personified.”

The TV show misses the point of what is terrifying about the case. Chris Hightower was a decent person who made a series of horrible choices that led him to do something dreadful. In pastoral conversations from that time, several people asked me a surprising question. “I wonder what I’m capable of doing?”  People told me about their significant stresses. The State Savings and Loan system collapsed that year, taking one-third of all savings. People were up against a terrible recession, strapped for cash, struggling in their marriages, mad at their bosses, and wondered if they were headed down a dark path. My first response was, “If you are talking to me and asking the question, you will probably be OK. It’s the unexamined attitudes that will get you.”

It’s highly unlikely you are going to murder someone.  But Jesus is making a larger point.  The faith he taught isn’t just about thou shalt nots.  Like all good detective thrillers, it requires a search for motive. When we face the truth about ourselves, fullness of life awaits us.

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