The Moral Imagination in the Mystery Novels of Sally Wright

by Ashlee Cowles

When it comes to fictional works of the moral imagination, fantasy novels tend to receive the most attention from critics who believe literature plays a vital role in the conservation of the Permanent Things. Indeed, such twentieth-century novelists as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Ray Bradbury made an incredible cultural impact by creating works that pushed back against the modern assumption that a human being is merely an advanced animal, and the material world we perceive with our senses is ultimate reality. Yet another genre joins fantasy literature in the fight against nihilism, relativism, and the despair that is the result of both: the “whodunnit?” or detective story set in a universe of order, of heroes and villains, of moral rights and moral wrongs. In other words, a universe worth living in.

In a superb article in Issue 6 of Forma, the magazine published by classical educators at the Circe Institute, Angelina Stanford analyzes the impact of the popular mystery genre. Perhaps the word “popular” is where we should start. In his essay, “A Defence of Detective Stories,” G. K. Chesterton claims the detective genre should not be dismissed under the assumption that “the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature.” Rather, Chesterton and Stanford both claim that one of the primary reasons mystery stories are popular is because they are stories with modern settings and modern characters that scratch an itch many modern people of all persuasions feel but can’t quite reach—the nagging sense that the “what’s right for you may not be right for me” refrain of contemporary culture can’t possibly be true when the vast majority of us are rightly outraged at the brutal rape of a woman or the unfathomable murder of a child. In a mystery novel, that outrage is properly ordered by a logical plot, familiar tropes, and traditional archetypes—“the liturgy” of the genre, says Stanford.

With literary roots in both the medieval morality play and the mythic warrior epic, mystery stories often seek to reclaim a premodern understanding of the world—a world in which meaning and morality actually exist. Heroes and villains are distinct realities in a mystery novel, the former sometimes portrayed as an “amateur sleuth”—an average person capable of taking decisive action against the gross array of heartbreaking evils that men commit against one another. “If the Modern Era is marked by overwhelming alienation, isolation, fragmentation—dominated by the theme of man’s inhumanity to man,” writes Stanford, then “mystery novels dive right into the heart of that darkness.” When we read a good mystery, we are assured there is “an underlying order girding the entire story”—both the story of the novel and the Story of our existence—and discover with our hero-detective “that it’s not that the universe is meaningless but rather that while the meaning is veiled, it can be perceived with effort.”

Instead of being a master swordsman who slays dragons or Trojans, this art of perception is the sleuth’s primary skill. In the good company of characters like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Chesterton’s Father Brown, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Ben Reese is such a hero. Created by Edgar Award-winning author Sally Wright, Reese’s skills of discernment are developed by his experiences as a World War II scout and a university archivist. Those who appreciate cerebral mysteries where the goal is not merely unmasking the murderer, but relishing the journey via detours into cultural and historical curiosities, will find Ben Reese an enjoyable companion in a series of six novels to date: Publish and Perish, Pride and Predator, Pursuit and Persuasion, Out of the Ruins, Watches of the Night, and Code of Silence.

Vivid settings are another feature of Sally Wright’s mysteries. The author notes on her website that Mrs. Wright finds “travel for research” one of the distinctive perks of writing fiction. And who wouldn’t want to visit such locales as Oxford, Scotland, and Tuscany, either in person or vicariously through an engaging story?

Thematically, the Ben Reese mysteries touch on many topics that will resonate with “bohemian Tory” conservatives of the Kirkian variety, where local culture, a living connection to the past, and a love of the land are more important than the “hot button” political squabbles of the day. In Out of the Ruins, for example, Ben Reese must solve a murder linked to a historic family’s ownership of Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, “now threatened by developers and government takeover.” This notion of big business and big government as equal threats to authentic culture and human flourishing was one of Russell Kirk’s favorite themes, evident in several of the ghostly tales collected in Ancestral Shadows.

So as All Hallow’s Eve approaches and you find yourself curling up with a spooky tale of the supernatural, expand your moral imagination by including a Sally Wright mystery—a modern story where “realism” means a universe in which truth and justice prevail.  

Ashlee Cowles is a former Russell Kirk Center Wilbur Fellow, a literature teacher at a classical high school, and the author of the novel Beneath Wandering Stars (Merit Press, 2016).