Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Wisdom of Father Brown

The Wisdom of Father Brown was the second of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown short story collections, appearing in 1914.

The Father Brown stories have remained enduringly popular and highly respected examples of the art of the detective story but they have also provoked rather sharply polarised responses from readers and critics.

One of the most frequent criticisms leveled at the detective story as a form is that it is contrived and unrealistic. Real life murderers rarely commit the incredibly elaborate murders that one finds in detective fiction. Real life amateur detectives are very rarely conveniently on hand when a crime is committed. Real private detectives spend most of their time on routine cases and rarely encounter the more spectacular kinds of crime. Real crimes are usually solved because real criminals are either too stupid, too arrogant or too reckless to have any hope of evading capture. There is no need for the brilliant leaps of intuition or the amazing deductive powers that are possessed by fictional detectives. Real crimes also tend to lack the pleasing symmetry or the delightful irony of fictional crime.

Why any of this should be a problem is in itself a mystery. After all surely the purpose of art and literature is not merely to reflect reality but to improve upon it. Reality is distressingly unstructured. Reality tends to lack clear-cut beginnings, middles or endings. In narrative terms it’s a shapeless formless mass. That’s why skilled storytellers make sure their stories do have clear-cut beginnings, middles and ends. A totally realistic detective story would be as crushingly dull and unsatisfying as any other attempts at literary realism.

It has to be said that Chesterton took disdain for realism to something of an extreme. The Father Brown stories make no compromises whatsoever with realism.

The other thing that can put people off Chesterton is that he always has an agenda. This is something that I don’t generally approve of in crime fiction - or at least I think it is something that has to be done sparingly and unobtrusively. Chesterton though is quite blatant about his agendas. Sometimes the agenda is a Catholic one, but not always. Somehow Chesterton seems to have the ability to get way with this practice, perhaps because his agendas are so very different from those we are accustomed to in modern crime fiction.

Father Brown himself is presented to us as a man who is remarkable only for his ordinariness and his apparent foolishness. He is a gentle, hopelessly innocent, bumbling and entirely helpless little man who seems to be so inept that one wonders how he has possibly survived. Of course we find out that he has a razor-sharp mind and is far from helpless. 

We also discover that he has an extraordinary knowledge of crime and of evil in general. In fact Chesterton was inspired to create the character when he heard a couple of undergraduates expressing the view that a priest could not possibly understand anything about evil. Chesterton was vastly amused by this - after all a priest spends a good deal of his life listening to other people’s sins, sins that would doubtless shock even the most worldly and cynical undergraduate. A priest would of course also get to know rather a lot about not just the psychology but also the mechanics of crime - to Chesterton the idea of a priest as a detective therefore suddenly seemed like a rather wonderful idea.

The Head of Caesar is a tale of blackmail with some original twists. A wealthy young woman has done something foolish and impulsive - she has stolen a coin to give to her lover. The coin happens to be an extremely valuable Roman coin and it happens to belong to her brother. The head of Caesar on the coin bears a striking resemblance to her lover, which is what prompted her impulsive romantic notion. Now she is being blackmailed - but how could anyone have known of her theft?

The Paradise of Thieves is delightfully whimsical. An English financier and his family on holiday in Italy are captured by brigands, along with Father Brown and an excitable Futurist poet. It all seems impossibly romantic for the 20th century. Had the story been slightly more light-hearted, or slightly less light-hearted it would have foundered. Chesterton however strikes the perfect balance.

The Duel of Dr Hirsch is an intriguingly odd story. A French pacifist intellectual named Hirsch has invented a powerful new weapon. There is reason to suspect he is a traitor and he is to fight a duel with an army officer named Dubosc. Father Brown knows the duel will never take place. It all hinges on the fact that not only was the information in the supposedly treasonous letter wrong, it was too wrong.

The Man in the Passage is a story about murder in the theatre, always a good subject for a detective story. There are a handful of suspects, all delightfully colourful and larger-than-life, and then there’s the mysterious man in the passage whose appearance no two witnesses can agree upon. It’s a one-trick story but still enjoyable. It’s also very unusual among Edwardian detective stories in featuring a court-room scene with the sudden bombshell revelation by a vital witness that would figure in so many subsequent court-room dramas.

The Mistake of the Machine takes on the issue of the rise of scientific methods of detection, in this case the then relatively new-fangled technology of lie detector machines. You won’t be surprised to learn that Father Brown does not approve of such machines. What’s interesting is that some of his principal objections to this technology really are quite devastating.

The Purple Wig deals with a family legend concerning the ears of the Dukes of Exmoor. The current duke wears a long purple wig to cover his ears. If you want to hide a deformity why choose something like a purple wig which will draw attention to that which is hidden?

The Perishing of the Pendragons also deals with a family curse, as well as a retired admiral, a series of shipwrecks, a strange wooden tower and a map of islands in the South Seas. Father Brown and Flambeau are in Cornwall, being regaled with tales of daring Cornish sea captains who could teach Sir Francis Drake a thing or two. The Pendragons, heirs of this great nautical tradition, live on an island in a river mouth. The most notable feature of the island is a bizarre wooden tower. The tower worries Father Brown and it’s not the only thing that worries him. He is so worried he decides to do some gardening, in the middle of the night. Flambeau thinks it’s madness but there is method in the little priest’s madness.

The God of the Gongs brings Flambeau and Father Brown to a dreary seaside town where the priest makes a grim discovery underneath a bandstand. This is murder and Father Brown realises that a man does not always chose to be lone to commit murder. This is a particularly sinister murder. This is a breathtakingly politically incorrect story.

The Salad of Colonel Cray is the tale of two retired soldiers one of whom imagines himself to be pursued by an Indian secret society. The two old soldiers have been burgled. Their silver has been stolen, even their silver cruet set. This is annoying, the colonel being especially fond of salads and being very particular about them. Father Brown realises that the theft of the cruet set is the key to the mystery.

The Strange Crime of John Boulnois involves jealousy, of several kinds. There is also a murder, the murder weapon being a sword. The solution seems obvious but Father Brown can see a less obvious solution.

The Fairy Tale of Father Brown is whimsy taken as far as it can be taken. Flambeau tells his friend a story of an old crime, a German prince slain by a bullet in impossible circumstances. Father Brown imagines how this impossible crime may have been committed - how a man who could not possibly have been could in fact have been killed by a bullet.

There have been several attempts to bring Chesterton's priestly sleuth to the screen (both the big screen and the small screen). The 1954 Father Brown movie with Alec Guinness was modestly successful. The 1974 TV series starring Kenneth More was infinitely superior.

The Father Brown stories are not quite like anything else in detective fiction. Chesterton’s lightness of touch allows him to carry off these odd little tales with effortless charm. The Wisdom of Father Brown is highly recommended.


  1. "A totally realistic detective story would be as crushingly dull and unsatisfying as any other attempts at literary realism."

    This is very true. I've often said that the fixation of the modern crime novel with psychotic serial killers and bumpy, troubled personal lives of their policemen are as far removed from the everyday reality as the curved daggers, poisonings and bizarre murder plots from the past.

    If they wanted to be completely realistic, they should depict an uneventful day in the life of a desk sergeant with boring, but stable, private life. Or a 300-page conversation between two cops during an all-night stakeout of a criminal's home. One that ends when two colleagues relieve them from duty and they're glad they can finally go home. No closure or whatever. Just two men who did their small part to fulfill their duty and earn that paycheck.

    I'm sure that the crowd who usually crows about realism in crime fiction would not be pleased, or entertained, by such a dull, drab and very realistic police novel.

    Sorry for this short ramble, but I saw an opportunity and took it. Anyway, about this collection, it has been some years since I read this collection, but I remember loving "The Fairytale of Father Brown," which probably gave rise to the term Chestertonian Fantasy.

    1. While I agree with that 'realism' is not to be praised at the expense of the 'unrealistic', I wish to be fair to the 'crowd who usually crows about realism'. When one speaks of 'realism' in art, they do not mean 'what is likely to happen in reality'. They may think they do, but they don't.

      'Literary Realism' is a set of stylistic devices that EVOKE reality, without replicating it. To say a modern detective story, with its focus on forensic science and insane criminals, is 'realistic', is to say: I, the reader, can suspend my disbelief and believe this could probably happen in real life. It is not probable, but one can suspend their disbelief.

      That an entirely realistic novel would be structure-less and meandering is irrelevant. There are degrees of un-reality in art. Some unrealities evoke life-as-it-is-lived better than others.

      Again, I am not slighting the greater levels of un-reality present in Father Brown or other Golden Age stories; nor do I slight un-reality in Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories; nor do I slight un-reality in 'literary realism'. Sometimes the greatest un-reality can tell us about human truths, while the 'realistic' is platitudinous banality. I am just saying that when someone says they want 'realistic' crime fiction, they actually mean: 'Give me a lie that I can believe is life-as-it-is-lived'. Some stories do not fulfil that criterion.

  2. I dearly want to have the patience for Chesterton because I love how some of his plots unfold, but the man's writing is not conducive to my good health: he takes so long to say anything that my blood pressure rises really rather quickly.

    And it doesn't help that the most famous stories -- 'The Invisible Man', 'The Arrow of Heaven', 'The Oracle of the Dog', etc -- are among the poorest I've been able to complete. When it's that much work to get through, I want to be reasonably certain I'm getting a decent payoff.

    Perhaps in my old age I will come to appreciate him more...

    1. Perhaps in my old age I will come to appreciate him more...

      That's quite possible! I like him a lot more now than I did twenty years ago. It is possible that you need to be middle-aged to appreciate him fully.

    2. This, at least, gives me some aspect of middle age to look forward to!