In addition to writing epic poems about Lepanto (the 450th anniversary of which is coming up next week on October 7, read all about it in this book), G.K. Chesterton wrote a series of short stories about “Father Brown” (no first name), a “priest detective,” who appears to have been the first in a more or less illustrious line of amateur clerical sleuths.
Father Brown’s adventures appeared in various magazines from around 1910 to 1936, later published in collections, such as The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914), The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), The Secret of Father Brown (1927) and, The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). (We may have missed a collection or two in there, but this isn’t intended as a bibliography.)
Recently we came across a comment about the character in a forum dedicated to things Chestertonian. As somebody or other said, “Can’t stand Father Brown. Always comes up with solution that the reader couldn’t possibly have known.”
|Msgr. Ronald A. Knox|
Well . . . not entirely. Admittedly, many of the clues are obscure to late twentieth and early twenty-first century readers, and the settings that would have been perfectly ordinary to Chesterton’s readers now strike people as exotic, even surreal, but he didn’t break Msgr. Knox’s “Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction” . . . very often.
Still, we’re going to risk irritating the Chestertonian Establishment more than we already have by saying that, in a sense, we agree with the interlocutor — up to a point. The plain fact is that the Father Brown stories aren’t that good as detective stories. Of course, neither are many of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Like the Father Brown stories, it’s primarily the character, not the specific mystery, you’re interested in.
|Anna Katharine Green|
If you want some great detective fiction from the pre-World War I period, read something by the woman who — according to Agatha Christi and S.S. Van Dine — practically invented the genre, Anna Katharine Green, whose The Leavenworth Case (1878) was arguably the first U.S. bestseller, employed plot twists that became clichés, and was even used as a text by Yale Law School for a time to illustrate the dangers of relying on circumstantial evidence . . . the butler did NOT do it! (Some claim that George Lippard’s weird novel, The Quaker City, or, The Monks of Monk Hall, from 1845, which has nothing to do with any religious Order, was the first bestseller.)
Returning to Father Brown, however, in the opinion of this writer, Chesterton had two primary reasons for writing the stories, and please keep your enraged reactions to yourselves; torches and guns are illegal in this area that does not permit open flames or open carries.
|Dr. Samuel Johnson|
For the first, earlier group of stories, Chesterton’s primary motive was to illustrate the inherent nonsense of imposing supernatural principles and explanations on the natural world, the essence of the New Things of socialism, modernism, and the New Age. For the second, later group of stories, the primary motive was money.
There is, of course, overlap among the two groups. As Samuel Johnson said, “Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” and Chesterton was far from being a blockhead. He might get a bit absent-minded at times and do things that strike us mundane types as a trifle eccentric or unrealistic — such as taking a cab for half a block or debating George Bernard Shaw — but he wasn’t stupid. Just because someone does something you wouldn’t do or that you don’t understand doesn’t make him evil or unintelligent.
It is the earlier group of stories that interest us from a natural law, Just Third Way perspective. Most of them present the reader with a mysterious happening that seems could only have been committed or carried out by mystical, otherworldly means. Mysterious Orientals, curses, prophets of new gods, bolts from Heaven — all pretty standard stuff for readers of Talbot Mundy novels and attendees at seances.
In steps Father Brown, a prosaic priest who clearly possesses no mystical powers (in the New Age sense), and in fact consistently denies that he relies on anything other than plain old common sense in his dealings in the natural and mundane world in which we live. When the other characters in the story insist that a crime could have been committed only by supernatural means, the commonplace clergyman listens very calmly and at the end gives a perfectly natural — not supernatural — explanation which (given the omniscience of the author of any fiction) turns out to be the right one.
|Alec Guinness as Fr. Brown|
Chesterton’s goal was not to present the reader with a puzzle to be solved, but to highlight the problem of the New Things, that is, the tendency, even insistence of many people in the modern world to impose the principles of the supernatural world on the natural world. In many cases for the past 200 years — and the reason in our opinion Chesterton used a Catholic priest to make his point — the supernatural principles and virtues of Christianity (faith, hope, and charity) are twisted and used to replace or supersede the natural principles and virtues of human life itself (prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice).
|Fulton J. Sheen|
As far as Chesterton was concerned, imposing the supernatural order on the natural order as the socialists, modernists, and New Agers sought to do was the invention of a new religion, even a new idea of religion itself, under the name of Christianity. By rejecting “man’s miserable intellect” and basing everything on faith (meaning in most cases one’s own opinion dressed up as “God’s Will”), adherents of the New Things overthrew reason and common sense in favor of their own will; might made right. This — according to Chesterton, Knox, Fulton Sheen and others — turned man from a God-creation into a God-creator, and in the process of attempting to create the Kingdom of God on Earth, succeeded only in creating a living Hell.
|St. Thomas Aquinas|
Chesterton also addressed the problem of the New Things in his non-fiction, primarily in his book on Saint Francis of Assisi (for whom adherents of the New Things had and have a very misplaced devotion and understanding), and his book on Saint Thomas Aquinas. In the former, he argued that St. Francis was not a proto socialist as the Fabian Society claimed, and that the Fraticelli (whom socialists regard as the only true Christians) were the enemies of society, not its saviors. In the latter, he showed how ordinary common sense fares against the insanity of the New Things and “the Double Mind of Man” that rejects reason and common sense.
And the latter group of Father Brown stories? Possibly the best way to look at them is “locked room” mysteries without the room. The reader is presented with a seemingly insoluble mystery . . . that ends up having a perfectly natural (and reasonable) explanation. Yes, Chesterton fudged a little by not really framing it as a puzzle that can be solved as is customary in “real” detective fiction, but that wouldn’t have been consistent with the way the earlier stories were developed. The theme is reason versus unreason, even without pseudo-supernatural explanations thrown in.#30#