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“In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Dame Agatha Christie, the renowned writer of detective fiction, added her name to a protest letter to Pope Paul VI. With over fifty other literary, musical, artistic, and political figures, Christie — who’d recently celebrated her eightieth birthday — expressed alarm at the proposed replacement of the old Mass rite, which used Latin and elaborate ritual, with a new rite in English with simpler ceremonial.
Although Christie’s then husband, the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, was Roman Catholic, she herself wasn’t. Christie didn’t defend the old rite, nor contest the new, on the grounds that either was good or bad for the Church. Rather, along with her fellow partners in crime, she argued that the old rite had inspired countless artistic achievements, including in poetry, philosophy, music, architecture, painting, and sculpture. These, she contended, made it a universal possession of human culture that the Church had no right to abolish. The letter had a positive outcome, securing an indult allowing the bishops of England and Wales to authorize the continued celebration of the old rite alongside the new. In 1984, a similar permission was granted worldwide.
The structure and logic of Christie’s plots mirror the Mass in its full, traditional drama. Her theological anthropology is one of lost innocence, with confessions of guilt for past offences, both spoken and unvoiced, punctuating exchanges. This guilt is frequently shared, problematizing attribution. At the centre is the death of a chosen victim, which is brought about by intentional and often meticulously planned actions. This death might be vicarious, the result of misdirected malice or false identification, and might be necessary to restore an order that has been violated by other, prior sins. A large country house is an appropriate setting, providing separation, distance, obscurity, and grandeur.
The crime’s execution and motive can’t immediately be understood, even if foreboding has preceded. Meaning instead emerges later, and progressively, out of the exchanges, recollections, repetitions, and silences that follow. At the dénouement, a deeper truth than the directly visible is finally brought fully into the light, with the significance of apparently superficial circumstances fully revealed. (…)”
(David Grumett lectures in Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Material Eucharist (OUP, 2016). David’s other books include De Lubac: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2008) and Teilhard de Chardin: Theology, Humanity and Cosmos (Peeters, 2005).)