The Great Detectives: G.K. Chesterton – Father Brown
by John Peterson
GO BACK TO ARTICLES MAIN PAGE
“My first case was just a small private affair about a man’s head being cut off.”
Father Brown in “The Mask of Midas”
It may surprise some of today’s readers of detective fiction to learn that Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was considered by his peers in the mystery-writers’ fraternity to have been the father of the cozy murder mystery or whodunit, the kind of detective story that held sway unchallenged through the twenties and thirties-the golden age of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Philo Vance, and Ellery Queen. The spirit (or specter) of Chesterton dominated the genre and its writers until the American pulp magazines broke the mold with their urban mean streets and gun-toting, tough guy private-eyes.
If we look back to the state of detective fiction in the first decade of this century, the figure of Sherlock Holmes dominated the landscape as no figure has before or since. As previously noted in the pages of this magazine, in the early 1900’s every magazine had to have its own version of Holmes. And the task of equaling or surpassing Holmes was thought to entail creating a more relentlessly logical or more keenly observant or more wildly eccentric crime-solver who solved ever more baffling puzzles and uncovered ever more convoluted conspiracies. Note the improbable enigmas unraveled by Jacques Futrelle’s Thinking Machine, Professor Van Dusen (who in his first chess game defeated the world champion); Baroness Orczy’s contemptuous Man in the Corner (who solved the most baffling crimes merely by reading his newspaper in a restaurant); and M. P. Shiel’s reclusive Russian exile, Prince Zaleski (who solved the unsolvable through mystical intuition while reclining on cushions and smoking his hookah).
The very excellence of the Holmes stories had repeatedly led detective fiction and its practitioners around a cul-de-sac. It was Chesterton who came to the rescue. Today’s readers know G. K. Chesterton as the author of the Father Brown mystery stories. In his own day, however, Chesterton was thought of primarily as a popular controversialist whose books and journalism covered religion, economics, history, travel, social justice, literary criticism, and much more. Chesterton was also the first respected literary critic to write extensively on the subject of the detective story. He read these stories himself, literally by the hundreds-stuffing his pockets with them as he waited by a bookstall for the next train. He would typically miss his train and then wander off absentmindedly without paying for the books. It didn’t matter. The savvy bookseller would just send Mrs. Chesterton the bill.
Chesterton did not claim the literary superiority of mystery stories over the “tea-table novels” that intellectuals of the time took so seriously. However, he did claim that detective stories presented a more accurate portrayal of life, packed as they were with dangers and surprises. He saw detective stories as a series of contests between individual free wills, unlike the conflicts between impersonal forces found in the modern novels (with their emphasis on psychological urges and social pressures). Their outcomes seemed so inevitable, whereas with murder mysteries, readers were kept in the dark about which of the characters had done the grisly deed, and why. As Father Brown explained in “The Man with Two Beards” (1925), “Our general experience is that every conceivable sort of man has been a saint. And I suspect you will find, too, that every conceivable sort of man has been a murderer.”
Chesterton was a great admirer of Holmes and wrote, in 1922, that “there have never been better detective stories, and I do not think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has ever been thanked enough for them.” But he was unhappy with Conan Doyle’s imitators. He thundered against unlikely endings that introduced at the last minute the twin brother from America, or the secret society of Tibetan assassins, or the freshly-invented poison that leaves no trace, or the “proof” that a seemingly insignificant character was actually the arch villain.
He deplored the emphasis on the mechanics of crime and detection, which he found sterile and dispiriting, preferring instead to write about the human aspects of crime-motives, emotions, choices, innocence, and guilt. He said that when, in the typical puzzler, a curate is quickly cleared of suspicion because he had been barred from the scene by a high fence, we will probably learn on the last page that he had once been a pole-vaulting champion. “It always makes me feel,” he wrote, “that the last page is the worst, when the last page should be the best of all.”
The only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will; it involves finding out that men are worse or better than they seem, and that by their own choice.
Chesterton insisted that the reader ultimately wanted enlightenment, not mystification, and that at the heart of every complicated detective yarn must lie the discovery of a simple truth-a discovery your nephew might yell from the window, such as: “The Archdeacon is Bloody Bill!” He argued that detective story readers wanted to be fooled, but fooled fairly. He favored the homey or domestic murder with the scope of the investigation narrowed to a brief time and a confined place, a limited number of suspects, and clues which are revealed to both the reader and the detective.
His own first attempt at writing mysteries came in 1904 when he published a series of magazine stories that turned the Sherlock Holmes idea on its head. The hero of these stories is Basil Grant, a retired judge whose brother Rupert is a Holmes-struck private detective who investigates crimes and chases villains. Basil inevitably solves Rupert’s cases by proving the villains are innocent, since no crimes have actually been committed. They were funny stories (still in print in the collection called The Club of Queer Trades), but there was nothing new in spoofing Sherlock Holmes. What was new was Judge Grant’s approach. Using the moral wisdom he had gained from his years on the bench, he succeeded by ignoring the facts (“Facts point in all directions, it seems to me,” he said.) in favor of what he called “the atmospheres.” It was the seed of an idea that would later blossom into Father Brown.
The inspiration for making his detective a priest came out of Chesterton’s friendship with Father John O’Connor, the Roman Catholic pastor of St. Cuthbert’s in Bradford. It is a tale often repeated, which we have on Chesterton’s authority (as recorded in his Autobiography), later confirmed by O’Connor in his own memoirs. The two had spent some hours walking on Ilkley Moor, discussing this and that. The priest disagreed with some of Chesterton’s kindly views on begging and beggars, and felt obliged to inform his friend about some of the less savory practices of professional beggars. Chesterton was profoundly shocked. Not then a Roman Catholic himself, Chesterton had assumed that priests would be less informed about such “glimpses of hell” than a Fleet Street journalist or well-read man of letters. But as Father Brown would remark in the first of the stories (“The Blue Cross,” 1910), “a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil.”
Shortly after their walk, Chesterton and O’Connor sat with two Cambridge undergraduates who chatted with them about art and music. When the priest left the room, the two young men remarked, with worldly condescension, on the cloistered innocence of priests. Chesterton’s reaction bears repeating:
To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me, this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a loud harsh laugh in the drawing room. For I knew perfectly well that, as regards all the solid Satanism which the priest knew and warred against with all his life, these two Cambridge gentlemen (luckily for them) knew about as much of real evil as two babies in the same perambulator.
Father Brown, the unassuming little popish priest who understood evil, was born out of that conversation. When asked in “The Hammer of God” (1910) how he had come to this understanding of the dark side of life if he were not himself a devil, Father Brown replied simply, “I am a man, and therefore have all devils in my heart.”
The first twelve Father Brown stories appeared in America in The Saturday Evening Post, beginning in July, 1910. They were also published in England in Storyteller, beginning in September, 1910 and in Cassell’s, beginning in February, 1911. These stories were collected and published as The Innocence of Father Brown, which Ellery Queen called “the Miracle Book of 1911.” Chesterton the literary critic had succeeded in putting his ideas into practice. His stories established the conventions of the cozy whodunit. The murder is usually committed out of greed, jealousy, pride, hatred, or fear by a friend or family member of the victim; the deed is done in the comfort of an exclusive restaurant or the courtyard of a Gothic church, rather than in a den of thieves or amidst a gang of thugs; the resolution is usually surprising, unless deduced by the astute reader from clues and hints the author has sprinkled throughout the story; and, most importantly, the detective’s success in solving the case rests not on his ability to identify the telltale cigar ash or interpret peculiar footprints, but on his ability to understand human motives. As Father Brown says in “The Secret of Flambeau” (1927), “When I tried to imagine the state of mind in which such a thing would be done, I realized that I might have done it myself under certain mental conditions. And then, of course, I knew who really had done it.”
Father Brown’s appearance is as commonplace and conventional as possible. He is described as a short little man with a moon face and blinking, owlish eyes, who wears a black cassock and a clerical shovel hat, and carries a large, shabby black umbrella. He is a companionable man, engaging and witty in conversation, and-most importantly-an attentive and sympathetic listener. When, for example in “The Blast of the Book”(1933), a certain Professor Openshaw meets Father Brown at a restaurant, he is surprised to find the priest engaged in an earnest discussion with the waiter, “apparently about the waiter’s most private affairs.” When Openshaw asks how the priest had come to know the man, it turns out that Father Brown dined there “every two or three months”, so talked with him “now and then.” The professor, who dined there five times a week, had never thought of the waiter at all.
The incident hints at Father Brown’s skills as an amateur sleuth. Of course he was a keen observer and sound logician, but the real secret of his success was his practical knowledge of human nature and his ability to apply that knowledge to the problem at hand. “I can always grasp moral evidence easier than the other sorts,” he explained to a friend in “The Duel of Dr. Hirsch” (1914). “I go by a man’s eyes and voice, and whether his family seems happy, and by what subjects he chooses-and avoids.”
Readers familiar with the stories will recall the case of the perpetually cheerful man who shocked everyone, except Father Brown, by committing suicide (“The Three Tools of Death,” 1911). Father Brown admitted the man had been uncommonly cheery but asked if this cheerfulness was the kind that was communicated to others. “Was anyone else in his house cheerful but he?” the priest asked, thus opening a new avenue of inquiry in the mind of the young police investigator. In a similar way in “The Actor and the Alibi” (1926), Father Brown saw through the pose of a beautiful actress who was worshipped and admired by everyone around her except, as he was quick to note, her personal maid. “If you want to know what a lady is really like,” he said, “don’t look at her-look at some other woman who is always near to her, and especially one who is under her. You will see in that mirror her real face.”
Father Brown’s moral reasoning plays a part in every one of his stories, but his greatest success was his triumph over Flambeau, the notorious international jewel thief. Flambeau figured in most of Father Brown’s early adventures, first as an adversary and then as a penitent thief turned private investigator. He brought Father Brown into his most perplexing cases (Flambeau was no fool), which provided a springboard for a number of the stories. But exactly how did the priest manage to reform this die-hard criminal? Flambeau himself answers this question in “The Secret of Flambeau” (1927) after an overbearing American tourist belittles Father Brown’s methods. “Frankly, I don’t think it’s practical,” the man states. “Its practical effect would be that no criminal would ever reform.” Outraged, Flambeau says:
“I stole for twenty years with these two hands; I fled from the police on these two feet. I hope you will admit that my activities were practical. Have I not been asked how it was possible for anyone to fall so low, told that no decent person could ever have dreamed of such depravity? Do you think all that did anything but make me laugh? Only my friend told me that he knew exactly why I stole; and I have n