Review: Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

Review: Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

The Paradox of Murder Mysteries

JUSTYNA BRAUN

Daniel Taylor’s three mystery novels—Death Comes for the Deconstructionist (2014), Do We Not Bleed? (2017), and Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees (2020)—are real page-turners. They deliver suspenseful plots, delight by rich allusions, and challenge through thoughtful explorations. In each of the three books which comprise the series, Jon Mote, an army veteran and former doctoral student in literature, follows the trail of a murder. Where dead bodies appear so do the finality of death and the persistence of life’s most difficult questions. Taylor conveys them in trenchant, modern terms. Is truth a reality or a construct? What does it mean to be normal? Does language articulate or merely assign meaning?

In the first book, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, Dr. Richard Pratt, a star in the constellation of contemporary literary theorists, is found dead. When the police investigation proves inconclusive, Pratt’s wife hires Mote, one of her husband’s former graduate students, to look into the evidence. Mote’s credentials for detective work are slim. He knows how to research, analyze, make connections—skills and mental habits he learned in the PhD program. As Mote interviews potential suspects, the straightforward question of whodunit becomes a probe into the very foundations of reality: Does truth exist? Are people and their lives merely collections of shifting identities and narratives? Is meaning an illusion we create to mask the endless play of signification? Faddish jargons, ideological clashes, and departmental politics, are woven by Taylor into a brilliant satire of academia. Taylor’s critique, born no doubt from years of personal experience of university teaching, focuses on deconstruction. Dr. Pratt, a guru in the world of literary theory, champions deconstruction as a powerful mode of liberation from oppressive metaphysical and social structures. By denying absolutes, deconstruction seeks to undermine every kind of hegemony.  It treats language as a play of floating signifiers, unable to assert stable explanations of reality and concomitant ethical codes. Truth, deconstruction insists, is something produced, not found. Mote’s investigation, however, reveals far-reaching implications of the rejection of truth. For, as one of the novel’s characters observes, if there is “no truth there is only power”; and if language is just play, then it cannot communicate a response to power. Thus, even as it promises liberation from metanarratives, deconstruction robs us of the strongest weapon we have to correct them: the ability to articulate truth.

While Mote pieces together the circumstances of Pratt’s death, his own life becomes a study in deconstruction. Orphaned at a young age and raised by an abusive uncle, he is going through a divorce and, as the novel begins, teeters on the verge of a mental breakdown. Accompanying him through the detective work and emotional turmoil is his special-needs sister, Judy. Her limitations increasingly provide an antidote to his haunted psyche. Judy personifies order, transparency, and faith. She is the counterweight to the centrifugal trajectory of Mote’s personal losses and psychological fragmentation. Judy walks with him to the brink of collapse and back.

In the second book of the series, Do We Not Bleed?, it is Judy’s need that restores Mote to hope and lucidity. He finds part-time employment as an assistant at the group home for the mentally handicapped where Judy resides with five other special needs adults. Mote’s duties are simple: to plan activities, accompany the residents on outings, eat with them, and escort them to therapies and workshops. Things change when another resident is found dead and one of Mote’s protégées is accused of murder. Reluctantly, Mote again follows a precarious trail of clues. The handicapped adults assist him in more than one way, most importantly by forcing him to confront his own woundedness. The residents, whose limitations preclude them from living independently in mainstream society, teach Mote about realities far deeper than social graces, reading, or the ability to tell time. Victims of genetic disorders and human hardness, they accept themselves and each other as they are. Their capacity for love and suffering, frankness and solidarity, reveals a more credible standard of normalcy than that obtained in the world of allegedly healthy adults.

Mote watches in dismay as efforts at normalizing the mentally handicapped alternate between humiliating, infantilizing, and coercive measures to conform their behavior to arbitrary standards of normality.  Because institutional definitions of normal and abnormal become oppressive, it becomes tempting to deny such distinctions and proclaim all behavior as acceptable. Sister Brigit, former director of the now secular, for-profit, home for the mentally handicapped, takes a radically different perspective. Woundedness belongs to the human condition, she argues: but it is also a part of the divine condition. “God allowed himself to become disabled—first by becoming one with us, then by accepting his death on the cross,” says Sr. Brigit. Mote takes her statement to the next logical conclusion: a transcendent God “can be kept as a mental category, a concept. But have him running around getting himself crucified and then, oh my God, rising from the dead and you’ve ruined everything. You’ve made him something we have to deal with personally….” The remedy for hurt is not normalization, but love. And perhaps faith. Not detached and intellectual, but as real as dealing with “an annoying neighbor—or one’s spouse,” reflects Mote.

Indeed, in the third book of the trilogy, Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, faith constitutes the focus of Mote’s search. Thanks to Judy’s unwavering support, Mote reconciles with his estranged wife and gains a measure of personal and professional stability. He lands a job as an editor for a publishing house and, because of his Christian upbringing, is chosen to assist on a Bible translation project. Bibles, it turns out, sell better than other books. To widen company profits, Mote’s bosses acquire the rights to an amateur translation and assemble a team of biblical scholars hand-picked for their name recognition and diversity to transform the amateur text into a marketable Bible. Their meetings soon erupt into ferocious battles about the historicity of biblical events, connotations of individual words, and the person of Christ himself.  Some of the experts are non-believers, Mote finds out, while others identify as fundamentalists. Then one of the translators dies. A heart attack is blamed; but when more bodies turn up, the translation committee knows the deaths are not mere coincidence.

The real mystery of this novel, however, is not the identity of the killer but the Bible itself. In the process of translation, words change like arbitrary signifiers assigned to ancient verses whose nuances and allusiveness are inevitably lost or distorted. The Bible becomes the translators’ words more than God’s Word. What is left of the Bible, then? It is the story, Taylor suggests. We verify the story by living it. Only by living it can we affirm its truth and ability to answer life’s deepest needs. As one of the translators admits in a conversation with Mote: “Can’t prove it. I can witness to it.” At the end of the day, it is Mote’s own life that must validate and bear witness to the biblical account of sin and redemption.

One aspect of the novel left this Catholic reader unsatisfied. Catholicism is always present on the map of Jon Mote’s spiritual explorations. It even finds a compelling representative in the character of Sister Brigit.  Given her prominent role in Mote’s journey, it is surprising that he never inquires into the logic of her faith.  It is difficult to decide whether this silence about Catholicism stems from the author’s understandable reluctance to proselytize or from lack of interest. One hopes that, so long as faith remains a question rather than a settled formality for the novel’s protagonist, he will continue the search.

Ultimately, Taylor’s three novels are deeply comforting. Jon Mote inhabits a universe where events have meaning, where words and objects give reliable clues, and where truth exists. For such is the paradox of a murder mystery: however gruesome the original crime, however confused the hunt, in the end questions are answered and doubt resolves into certainty.

Justyna Braun holds a PhD in comparative literature from Rutgers University.  From 2001 to 2011, she was a member of the English Department at Franciscan University of Steubenville.  She currently teaches literature and philosophy at Chesterton Academy of Buffalo, New York.

This article first appeared in Humanum Review, May 18, 2020