Friday, August 26, 2016

G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a 1922 collection of a dozen short stories by G.K. Chesterton, eight of which feature Horne Fisher, a man who describes himself as The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Horne Fisher has a brilliant mind and knows a great many things, attributes that make him a formidable crime-solver. Sometimes however it is possible to know too much and to be able to do too little about it. As a result Horne Fisher’s cases do not always have neat endings. He almost invariably finds the correct solution but this does not necessarily mean that an arrest can be made and that justice can be done.

The Face in the Target introduces us to Horne Fisher and to his sidekick Harold Marsh. There’s a fairly ingenious murder method and the action takes place among some of the most important people in the kingdom. 

The Vanishing Prince is much better. Michael O’Neill is an Irish political agitator who claims descent from royalty, hence his nickname Prince Michael. He has been pursued by the authorities for years, without success. He has a remarkable talent for vanishing when he needs to do. In fact it almost seems as if he can vanish into thin air. Now the police are certain they have him. He has taken refuge in a tower and there is absolutely no possibility of escape. However when the police finally enter the tower, at the cost of two dead police officers, there is no-one there.

Horne Fisher finds the explanation for the mystery and it’s a very clever solution to a very clever crime that is not quite the crime it appears to be. One of the prince’s earlier disappearing acts is just as clever.

The Soul of the Schoolboy is too whimsical and lightweight for its own good. It concerns the theft of a certain rare and very ancient coin, or is it a theft?

The Bottomless Well is a huge improvement. This story takes place in an outpost of the British Empire, somewhere in the Middle East. There is a very ancient well, to which certain legends are attached. There is a hero, and a very imperial hero he is too. There is a handsome young officer, and a none-too-faithful wife. There is murder. What puzzles Horne Fisher is the part that the bottomless well plays in the crime, or rather the part that the bottomless well doesn’t play in the crime. 

This is a story which illustrates rather well the peculiar nature of Horne Fisher as a detective. It is obviously disastrous for a detective to know too little but sometimes a detective who knows too much is in an even more invidious position. There are some crimes that simply cannot be solved satisfactorily if the detective knows certain things.

The Hole in the Wall is better still. A masquerade party at a country house ends in a murder, but without a body. The solution has its roots in the Middle Ages and requires Horne Fisher’s sophisticated understanding of the nature of scepticism and his knowledge that names may mean something other than what they seem to mean, or they may mean precisely what they seem to mean.

The Fad of the Fisherman deals with a murder that hinges on politically inspired blackmail and a man’s devotion to fishing.

Horne Fisher describes his early attempt at a political career in The Fool of the Family. The attempt ended in complete failure even though he won the by-election by a landslide. In fact it ended in complete failure because he won the by-election by a landslide. Chesterton  is rather merciless about the hypocrisy and dishonesty of politics - clearly politics hasn’t changed much between Chesterton’s day and ours.

The Vengeance of the Statue does include a solution to a murder but it’s secondary to the main thrust of the story which is a kind of political fantasy with hints of science fiction and alternative history and even conspiracy theories.

The eight Horne Fisher stories are loosely connected and while they feature crimes the solutions to which display Fisher’s skills as a detective The Man Who Knew Too Much stories are perhaps better regarded as a political allegory combined with some philosophical speculation about action versus contemplation and the usefulness (or lack of usefulness) of knowledge. Horne Fisher knows an enormous amount about how the world really works but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can do anything about it. If it so happens that one day he is compelled to do something about it the consequences may be momentous and unpredictable.

The other four stories in this collection do not feature Horne Fisher. 

The Trees of Pride is a very strange story indeed. There is a detective story here but at times its closer to being a dark fairy tale. The most remarkable thing about Squire Vane’s Cornish estate is the presence of three trees. Popularly referred to as peacock trees they do not seem to belong in Cornwall. In fact the locals feel very strongly that those trees should not be there. There are legends, dark legends, about these trees. There are those who believe the trees can kill. There are even those who believe the trees can eat birds, and possibly people. Squire Vane has no patience with such superstitions. To prove his point he spends a night in the wood where the trees grow, near the sea. The squire enters the wood but he does not leave it on the following day.

Have the trees killed the squire, or has someone murdered him?

Chesterton characteristically uses this story to make pertinent observations about the nature of belief, the persistence of legend and the use (and possible misuse) of both reason and faith. Despite its extreme oddity it’s an intriguingly unusual tale.

The Garden of Smoke is fairly odd as well. There’s certainly a murder. There’s a murder weapon but its in plain sight all the time only no-one can see it. There’s a cast of colourful characters including a quite appalling lady poet and a salty old sea dog. In this tale Chesterton paints a rather damning picture of artists and intellectuals.

In The Five of Swords two amateur detectives, a Frenchman and an Englishman, stumble across the tragic aftermath of a duel. The question is - was it a regular duel conducted according to the rules of honour? Everything suggests that it was, apart from the curious circumstance of the broken pane of glass. Another slightly unconventional but clever tale of detection.

The Tower of Treason takes place in eastern Europe. A coat of diamonds belonging to a long-dead king is protected within a monastery that is more like a fortress. It is quite impossible that the stones could be stolen, and yet they are disappearing a few at a time. A young Englishman comes under suspicion. In desperation to clear his name (and win the love of a certain lady) he calls on his old friend Father Stephen, a once-famous diplomatist who is now a hermit. The hermit asks some very puzzling questions about pickaxes, slippers, bells and birds. The young Englishman fears that his old friend is mad but there is method in the apparent madness of the hermit. Father Stephen is an unconventional a detective as you could ever hope to encounter but he has great wisdom and the answer is to be found in his heart. A strange but oddly compelling tale.

As much as I love Father Brown I’d rate this non-Father Brown collection as being at least as good as the Father Brown stories, and when it comes to plotting probably better. Chesterton loved the detective story but his own approach was always rather unconventional. He uses the detective story to comment on all kinds of social, aesthetic and moral issues but he has a knack of doing this without being irritatingly preachy. Chesterton was not a mere ideologue trying to ram his views down his readers’ throats. His views were complex and often surprising. 

It has to be said though that none of the twelve stories in this collection could be described as a straightforward detective story. If you dislike political, philosophical and religious themes mixed in with your tales of detections you might want to approach this collection with caution.

The Horne Fisher stories are generally excellent but the four non-Horne Fisher stories in this collection are in some ways even more interesting (and sometimes quite bizarre).

If you’re a devotee of Chesterton’s crime fiction and you’ve exhausted all the Father Brown stories then The Man Who Knew Too Much may be right up your alley. Highly recommended.

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