On Wednesday, we began A Conversation With Marcus Borg about the eternal lessons of the Christmas story, based on his new book with John Dominic Crossan, “The First Christmas.”
But, beyond Bible scholarship and his efforts to enliven Christians’ reflections on their faith, Borg has another life-long passion: Murder mysteries!
Over the years, when talking with Borg, I have enjoyed picking up his latest tips on mystery writers he has discovered and I know that other fans have discovered his taste for detectives, as awll. He tells me that, wherever he goes now to lecture and sign books, someone tugs at his sleeve and asks “what else” he is reading.
So, concluding our Conversation With Marcus Borg …
DAVID: Before we finish, I do want to ask you about mysteries, because I know that you love detective stories in particular. We’ve talked about this before, the fact that I’ve found a number of religious leaders and scholars who enjoy a good mystery.
But, last week, we published a Conversation With Frederick Buechner and one part of that conversation we didn’t publish in last week’s excerpts was this: He told me that the books he is enjoying most right now are the detective novels set in Africa by Alexander McCall Smith.
Let me read to you from the interview transcript what he said:
“My oldest daughter gave me a boxed set of his paperbacks and I have no way of telling you how much I enjoy them. As soon as I finish one, I rush to the next one, because they’re so engaging and peaceful at the same time. They’re so full of kindness and goodness and depth.”
And then, Buechner said this: “I think that all of these things I see in these novels I’d like to bring with me as I write this book about Jonah that I’m working on. I want to retell this story, but I want to make this version a quiet, unassuming, engaging kind of book. I’d like people to see the goodness and the depth in the story.”
MARCUS: Hmm. So, he’s reading in that way. Interesting.
DAVID: But, here’s the question we’ve talked about before: Why do you think religious people are drawn to murder mysteries?
MARCUS: A number of people now are aware that I read detective novels and they ask me what I’m reading. They want suggestions, but you’re the only person who keeps asking me about this idea you’re raising. It’s interesting to think about.
The most obvious connection for scholars and historians is with the detective. I may have even developed this theme in print somewhere, but here is the analogy I would make.
We might think of detective work as involving three stages: There’s the street detective who simply gathers something that might possibly be evidence, but the street detective doesn’t know what really will be evidence in the final case. It’s a process of collecting data.
Then there’s the forensic stage, the analysis of the data and the evidence. Sometimes these roles are performed by different people and sometimes they’re performed by the same person.
The third stage is what I would call the hunching stage, trying to see the big picture that the clues and the evidence that’s been analyzed adds up to – and that is like the process that at least a historian working with ancient material goes through. I don’t know if a historian working with, oh let’s say, the causes of the Vietnam War goes through exactly that same process, but particularly people who work in earlier periods of history where the evidence is particularly thin. We go through these stages.
But, it’s that hunching stage of the detective process that is most like what we do. There’s that whole relationship between clues and hypotheses that is so central to historical work.
DAVID: The interest goes deeper than that, doesn’t it?
MARCUS: Well, there is a second connection. A really good murder mystery or detective novel deals with the human heart, for want of a better phrase, including the heart of the murderer – the killer’s motivations. Oftentimes, we look at the darkness within all of us and the unconscious factors that motivate us.
We are all living within a mystery, in a sense.
Now, the difference between detective stories and religion is that in detective stories you typically find out in the end what happened, so the mystery is neatly solved. But that sense of living within a mystery touches something deep inside of us and, in religion, things do not get resolved so easily.
DAVID: As you were describing the connection in this way, I’m thinking of your interest in the novels of Charles Todd. They involve a returned soldier from World War I who is deeply traumatized. You put my wife, Amy, and I onto reading Charles Todd and the books are terrific.
What drew you to the series?
MARCUS: Gosh. There are a number of things in them. I like the specificity of time and lace in his novels. They’re set in England in the immediate aftermath of World War I. My Dad was in World War I and actually was at the front himself. So, I’ve always been fascinated by that war. Then, I lived in England for five years and I love England.
Then, I like the main character, Inspector Rutherford, and the depth with which Todd creates this character and the psychological aftermath of the war. In most detective stories there’s a sidekick involved. In this one, the sidekick is a dead man, Hamish, who seems to speak inside of Rutherford’s mind. That’s a brilliant idea in itself.
Hamish is a Scott who Rutherford had to order executed during the war. Hamish refused to lead his men into a battle that he knew was suicidal. He was guilty of insubordination and in order to demonstrate that this couldn’t be tolerated, he is executed under Rutherford’s orders by a firing squad. But now he lives on in Rutherford’s mind and he becomes conscious as a voice. He not only haunts Rutherford but he also helps him solve crimes.
Anyway, I just love character-driven detective stories, which is why I’m such a fan of Ian Rankin and for that matter Julia Spencer Fleming.
DAVID: Ian Rankin now is quite famous in this country. Americans love his books. He just had a mystery syndicated week by week in the New York Times Magazine. But Julia Spencer Fleming isn’t quite so well known.
Tell us why you enjoy her books.
MARCUS: Well, her novels are character driven and they’re very good with time and place. It’s like “thick description” to use an academic phrase. Her stories are set in a small town. The main character is an Episcopal priest in her mid to late 30s, but she was an army helicopter pilot for 10 years before going to seminary and becoming a priest, so she’s tough, she’s feminine, she’s smart, she’s spiritual and because the crimes are set n this small town there’s this rich development of the texture of small-town life and all the interrelationships.
And there is also this overlay in her novels of our lives being lived with God. We hear Claire doing the liturgy. We hear Claire doing her morning devotions sometimes.
DAVID: My wife and I picked up the whole series on your recommendation and they’re great, too. See why I have so much respect for your tastes in mysteries?
MARCUS: Well, here’s a new one. George Pelecanos. He’s Ian Rankin’s favorite detective author and they’re about the same age. I heard Ian Rankin speak and he recommended Pelecanos.
Most of Pelecanos’ books are set in Washington D.C., but this isn’t the Washington D.C. of high politics, or low politics for that matter. It’s the streets of the city that interest him. Heavy on character.
He has a main character who appears in five or so of his books but then some of his other books are not based on that main character and I’ve read them all now and I like them all. The main character Derek is a black private investigator and I like those best.
DAVID: Well, there’s another set of books for my shopping list.
MARCUS: And Martha Grimes. I like her books. They’re a little bit lighter, but I like them. They’re in a British setting and she names novels after pubs and has continuing characters in them.
One of the funniest things I’ve read in fiction is from one of her books. One of her characters is at a cocktail party and I walking across the room to get a drink and overhears a conversation between t here or four people. The only thing this character overhears is this British gentleman saying: “I’ve never quite seen the point of Finland.”
It’s this wonderful line that just comes out of nowhere in her book. I enjoy her whimsy. I enjoy her characters.
DAVID: Those of us who love mysteries tend to buy them by the series, right? So, we get to know the characters as we read book by book.
MARCUS: (chuckling as he says this) Maybe this is the way an introvert creates community — by reading a series of novels in which the same characters appear!
You talked to Buechner. You know he describes himself as a flaming introvert and I’m an introvert as well. But you read a series of books like this and, over time, you can say to yourself: Well, at least I know these people!
And that’s a perfect place to end our Conversation With Marcus Borg. Perhaps you know him a little better after our two-part talk with the Bible scholar.
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