October 23, 2002

Dead as a Dodo, by Jane Langton

Deb English has reviewed a couple of Langton's novels, and she finally persuaded me to give one a try--she thought that they might make good read-alouds for Jane and I. She further suggested I start with the earlier books in the series. I don't think this one is particular early, but it was the earliest I could find at the bookstore.

Homer Kelly, former detective, Harvard professor, transcendentalist, and his wife have been invited to Oxford for a term; Homer will be a visiting lecturer. Meanwhile, a number of odd events occur about the building and inhabitants of the Oxford Museum. A night watchman falls to his death; many jars of sadly decayed crabs are found mysteriously under a tarp in an area where refurbishment has been going on. Might they have been collected by Charles Darwin?

Before I start tearing into it, I'd like to say that I did enjoy it; it filled a pleasant afternoon.

To begin with, it isn't much of a murder mystery; there's a little mild-but-inconclusive investigation, and just a dribble of suspense, but there's no real deduction; the case, such as there is, just sort of solves itself over time. Homer Kelly doesn't so much solve the case as simply stamp "Solved" on its cover. (I seem to recall that Deb has made the same criticism.) And yet everyone is convinced that he's a great sleuth.

On top of that, the book is essentially a long meditation on evolution and the difficulties of bridging the gap between Science and Religion; it seems that one might sooner drive a Camel through the eye of a needle. And it's not a gap that I, at least, have any great difficulty bridging. I see no reason to interpret the first chapters of Genesis literally; it's a description of the creation suited for the first ancestors of the Hebrews. They weren't stupid people, by any means, but they weren't scientifically sophisticated. And given that understanding Divine Creation is probably beyond the human intellect anyway, it wouldn't matter much if God updated Genesis with a description suitable for people of our age--it still wouldn't tell the whole story. So what's the message of the creation story? In a nutshell: this is God's world; he created it; he created us. That's the meat of it. Who am I tell God what mechanisms he's allowed to use? God's got Eternity to work in; perhaps He decided that starting with a Big Bang and working His way up over billons of years to the first people was the most beautiful way to do it.

And so, given that the tale turns on the chasm between Science and Religion it didn't completely work for me.

But still, I did enjoy it; it was even a little goofy in spots. It didn't pass the read-aloud test, in that I wasn't motivated to share all of the good bits with Jane as I was reading it, but it was fun.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 23, 2002 06:10 PM