Action Alert!

The intrusion of secular values: A mysterious case study

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 19, 2016

I’ve noticed a great many negative cultural trends in the course of my life. In fact, from the Catholic perspective, very few trends in Western culture have been positive. It distresses me that I have not managed to leave a healthier cultural environment to my children and grandchildren. But sometimes the little negatives are more personally annoying than the big ones. A case in point is how something as apparently innocuous as personal recreation can become a spiritual challenge.

We’ve seen this in movies and television, of course, where most programming is not suitable for a family’s living room. When our kids were growing up, our policy tended to be simple: If we would toss a visitor out on his or her ear for a certain kind of behavior in our home, then we shouldn’t be watching television and movies which depict the same behavior in a tempting or positive way. Over the years, we found ourselves “consuming” (as we now say) less and less video entertainment.

That’s changed slightly with the advent of Internet streaming, which provides far more control over content, eliminates commercials, and substantially increases convenience. Binge watchers, beware!

The Great Mystery

But in recent years, when I’ve wanted what we might call pulp entertainment, I’ve tended to turn to mystery novels. Unfortunately, I’ve run into a number of telling cultural trends in these stories which make it more difficult to relax and enjoy the solution to “a nice clean murder” (as we like to call it in our household). Here’s my short list of the things that start me planning the perfect crime against mystery authors:

Female Leads: Obviously there is nothing wrong with a female detective that a slightly greater suspension of disbelief cannot cure. But it is astonishing how hard it is, in the local library, to find contemporary authors who still make their tough, savvy operators male. In most cases, physical dangers must either be eliminated from the plot or resolved in a thoroughly unbelievable way. There may be no good explanation of why this does not always annoy me. Back in the day, Miss Marple was really no more foolish in courting danger than Hercule Poirot. And to take a widely-known example from modern television, even I was totally sold on Cote de Pablo’s character (Ziva David) on NCIS. But I very much wish publishers would stop especially favoring mystery authors who obviously cater to our contemporary Western feminism.

Divorced Leads: Film makers have long preferred lead roles in which the characters are unmarried—never married, widowed, or divorced. I get that; it makes it easier to project the desired aura of romance. But in contemporary mystery novels, it is a comparatively hard to find a hero whose obligatory life experience does not include a failed marriage. This seems to be the preferred manner in which to communicate the character’s typical combination of angst and dedication to the job. It seems that modern heroes are not permitted to be particularly well-balanced. But they must be unbalanced and flawed in culturally acceptable ways.

Extra-Marital Sex: Have you noticed how rare a chaste hero is these days (not just in movies, but in mystery stories)? Authors who prefer self-mastery in their detectives typically resort to period pieces. They set their character in some century between the twelfth and the nineteenth, so that the reader can accept chastity because it is now out of date. But even then the unwary reader who values chastity may not escape. Some authors seem to think extra-marital sex was just as common—and considered just as inconsequential—in the West several centuries ago as it is today. For them, people just kept their secrets better.

Sexual Atrocities: As I suggested above, it is hard to find a “good clean murder” nowadays. With extraordinary frequency (in movies, on television, and in detective novels), crimes have to be made more titillating by some sexually abusive factor. Of course this factor will always be some type of deviant sexuality which is still regarded as seriously wrong, so the field of choice is rapidly narrowing. This is not entirely new; there has always been a tendency to make popular fiction pulpier through sexual titillation, including sexual horror. But I find myself wondering: Why can’t the criminal simply steal the fabled necklace and be done with it?

Same-Sex Attraction: It is increasingly hard to find contemporary mystery novelists who do not deliberately identify at least one significant character in each story as not only same-sex attracted but actively gay. One would think the number of practicing homosexuals we are likely to encounter is something like twenty percent of the population, instead of closer to two percent. The theme is typically “some of my best friends are gay”. These characters will frequently suffer abuse from unenlightened characters, and will never be the perpetrator of the crime featured in the plot. The percentage of gay characters who are admirable in every other respect is comparatively high as well.

Negative Stereotyping of Christians: Increasingly, characters who are given an ostensibly strong Christian identity are portrayed as unstable (especially if they are priests); as doddering antiquarians (though this has been common in the portrayal of Anglican clergy for a long time); as deeply conflicted because they cannot square their faith with what really seems true and good to them; as haunted by some serious past sin; as self-righteous or otherwise extraordinarily shallow; as blatantly hypocritical; as what we might call Catechism Christians (Christians by rote); as generally out of touch with reality; or, if they are well-liked by other characters, as likeable in spite of their Faith, not because of it.

Atheist or Agnostic Heroes: It is absolutely astonishing how often the main character in a mystery novel today—the hero or heroine—is specifically described as not believing in God, as not interested in thinking about God, as doubtful about the existence of the soul, or as recognizing he or she can no longer take any comfort in the beliefs of parents, grandparents, or past generations. These admissions often appear out of nowhere, as if they are an essential part of a hero’s characterization, even when religion has no bearing whatsoever on the plot or on anyone’s behavior in the novel. It would seem that most authors either lack metaphysical density themselves, or feel they must reassure their readers that they are portraying a culturally acceptable hero.

“Do not worry,” they seem to shout, “you will not be challenged by any favorable impression of spirituality here.”


So there we are. It is very difficult to screen out the obsessive prejudices of our dominant culture, even briefly and just for a moment of fun. Our mystery hero will have revealed his or her broken marriage, encountered grave sexual evil which is sharply contrasted with a healthy licentiousness, established impeccable credentials when it comes to politically-correct tolerance, jumped into bed with his or her romantic interest du jour, established a safe distance from any strong religious character, and proclaimed the death of God—all by two-thirty on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

God is far more visible in nature than in contemporary popular literature. Perhaps I should grab my umbrella and go for a walk in the woods.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: p.hession20095038 - Aug. 21, 2016 9:46 PM ET USA

    If you want to read uplifting but excellent fiction, may I recommend my wife, Penelope S. Hession, to you. Her novels are available at Lulu.com. Just put in her last name. She is excellent in dialogue and character development, and her novels are page turners. I especially recommend the Fr. Jon series.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Aug. 20, 2016 6:58 PM ET USA

    Took the words out of my mouth. The writing on some series that used to be watch-worthy has become atrocious to the point of laughable with all the mandatory characters. I so miss Vincent Price on the old Masterpiece Mystery!

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Aug. 20, 2016 9:57 AM ET USA

    My wife and I are finding it more and more difficult to find anything worth spending a couple of hours watching! By DVRing, at least we can fast forward through many of the scenes that are objectionable. The big thing today seems to be the language. Do people actually use so many obscenities? When reading non-Christian writings, we are reading novels written by Christian writers. Great article!