Almost a hundred year ago, G. K. Chesterton sent forth a humble village priest called Father Brown on his first tragicomic adventure, and in the process created one of the best-liked and most unlikely sleuths of detective fiction. These two exceptional volumes contain the stories that introduced the ridiculous figure of the little priest, with his face "as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling" and "eyes as empty as the North Sea," clutching his battered hat and ungainly umbrella. As humble as Sherlock Holmes is vain, Father Brown wanders into similarly weird problems: stolen fish knives, a victim wearing the wrong head, a happy man who commits ghastly suicide. But when others are rattled, Father Brown remains calm, for he has worked in slums and has heard far worse things, no doubt, through the screen of the confessional. His aims are slightly different from Holmes' as well. For Father Brown, crime is a manifestation of sin, which gives a whole new (or very, very old) meaning to cracking the case. The criminal must be caught, but he or she must also be saved; the culprit has to be locked up, but the spirit must be freed. Chesterton--journalist, poet, philosopher, and literary celebrity--made the mystery story perform new tricks, incorporating it into his ongoing battle against what he saw as the nihilism of the age. A chance encounter with a worldly wise Irish priest, Chesterton would later write, "brought me in a manner face to face once more with those morbid but vivid problems of the soul" and inspired the idea of Father Brown. But if the problems were morbid, the stories that resulted certainly are not. What has given these tales such longevity is that they are humorous while also being earnest; crime is one door that opens onto the divine comedy of human life.
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was not only one of the great writers of the twentieth century but a larger-than-life character who fascinates and perplexes us to this day. An art student who became a poet, and then by turns a journalist, playwright, biographer, novelist, storyteller, philosopher, and "Christian apologist," his fame rested on an uncanny ability to produce vast quantities of crystalline prose quickly and without apparent effort. His friend Hilaire Belloc once said that "No one whatsoever that I can recall in the whole course of English letters had his amazing--I would almost say superhuman--capacity for parallelism." Chesterton's career took off in the year 1900, and thereafter he poured forth a torrent of essays, articles, books, lectures, and letters, but always displayed a flare for balanced phrasing, arresting paradoxes, and a wit not seen since the eighteenth century. One might say that he had perfect pitch. After a happy Victorian childhood and a painful young adulthood during the heyday of fin-de-siècle "decadence," he attained a Christian faith that was at once optimistic, practical, and profoundly philosophical. Chesterton converted to Catholicism in 1922. His debates with figures such as H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, both in print and in person, were famous. But some of his positions became notorious; Chesterton's conservatism (and some of his acquaintances) led him to sympathize with anti-Semitism and fascism, though he was also, in the words of Garry Wills, "the best exponent of the ethos of democracy that I know." After his death and the Second World War, his reputation declined, but a Chesterton revival has led to reevaluation and renewed appreciation. His fiction--particularly the Father Brown stories, and the delirious suspense novel The Man Who Was Thursday--remains his most widely read and entertaining works.
Some of the Father Brown stories are typical of the Edwardian period, with wizened butlers, crazy aristocrats, skulking Hindus, knife-wielding Italians, murders committed with antique bronze daggers, and all the rest of the paraphernalia of those who tried to go Conan Doyle one better. "The Sign of the Broken Sword" is little more than a shaggy dog story, in which Father Brown investigates a murder long past that hinges on a device as ingenious as it is improbable. Chesterton also mirrors the contemporary fascination with science--though unlike his contemporary R. Austin Freeman (creator of Dr. Thorndyke, the greatest scientific detective of them all), he satirizes rather than celebrates it. Thus, the stories can be enjoyed as Edwardian puzzles; but we miss much of their significance if we ignore the religious background, and the fact that the casting of a priest in the role of detective meant more to Chesterton than just coming up with a novel kind of sleuth.
Chesterton is a writer who excites fierce allegiance; where other authors are admired, he is loved. (Perhaps this is the quality that most irritates his detractors.) The ultimate tribute to the power of his work may be that major Catholic writers such as C. S. Lewis and Graham Greene partly attributed their conversions to his writings. The Irish revolutionary Michael Collins cited Chesterton's novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill as an inspiration and his favorite book. He wrote philosophy like a storyteller, and stories like a philosopher. But in all his writing, Chesterton always seems to know where he is, and never gets lost in thickets of digression or the common muddiness of groping toward what one wants to say. He was, as he says, "wide awake." This is the quality that makes him, even when not convincing, at least so incredibly clear. It seems to be directly related to his childhood, which he certainly romanticizes in his autobiography but about which he also makes the arresting statement that "in my childhood I was all there." He means that he had an absolutely immediate sense of the reality of the world and delight in its being (including, of course, his own), which he briefly lost but later regained. It preserved him from the pathological negation and solipsism into which he felt the modern age had fallen. His contemporaries often commented on his childlike quality, but this to him was praise, for "it is only the grown man who lives a life of make-believe and pretending; and it is he who has his head in a cloud."
It is necessary to understand this intellectual development, or lack thereof--Chesterton says at the end of his life "I have never really changed at all"--because it explains Father Brown's quietly ecstatic simplicity. The innocence of Father Brown is not a phrase chosen at random. As he says in "The Hammer of God," one of the best of the stories, "Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak." Father Brown does not look down on the world or on frail mortals, but up at them in wonder. This is a different thing from naiveté; he also says "I am a man . . . and therefore have all devils in my heart." His innocence comes from an awareness of sinfulness, and his remarkable sympathy from disengagement. Of course, being a person to whom sinners confess, the priest is familiar with the ways of the world--"As one knows the crooked track of a snail, I know the crooked track of a man." From the confessional he also takes his ability to listen and to be silent. One of the narrative devices of the stories is that Brown says nothing for long periods, then comes out with startling non-sequiturs that result from a chain of reasoning that he hasn't shared with anyone. (Probably the most startling example is in "The Head of Caesar," where he suddenly looks up at his companion in a pub and says, "I wish you'd follow that man with the false nose.") Chesterton was not the first to use this device--it was a trademark of Sherlock Holmes--but it was most ingenious to link it to the priest's vocation.
A priest is also, of course, a professional keeper of secrets. Rather disconcertingly, Father Brown tells one murderer, "you have not yet gone very far wrong, as assassins go," and leaves it up to him either to confess or escape. For it is not the priest's job to punish, but to redeem. Father Brown saves more than one person from the gallows, and others from themselves. He does it, however, using the rational methods of the classic detective story. He comically demolishes the theories of the police in such stories as "The Three Tools of Death" and "The Mistake of the Machine"--in the first using logic, and the second psychology. In "The Secret Garden," he unmasks a false priest by showing that he "attacked reason," stating, "It's bad theology."
The realization that a priest is at least as worldly as a big-city detective, as has been intimated already, was based on an actual encounter. In a period of intense activity not long after his marriage to his beloved wife, Frances, Chesterton happened to meet a charming Irish Catholic priest named Father John O'Connor after a lecture. Chesterton at the time was perhaps the most brilliant figure in the London literary world, a man of voracious curiosity and wide learning; but in the course of one of those far-ranging discussions that so delighted him, the priest got the better of him. Chesterton later wrote, "in my own youth I had imagined for myself any amount of iniquity; and it was a curious experience to find that this quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses far deeper than I." The idea grew upon him of "constructing a comedy in which a priest should appear to know nothing and in fact know more about crime than the criminals."
But O'Connor--who became one of Chesterton's closest friends--was not the only inspiration for the character of Father Brown. He has a good bit of St. Thomas Aquinas in him, and more than a little of Chesterton himself. Aquinas' realism resonated with Chesterton's own childish, intuitive perception of the first and most amazing thing we notice about the world, namely that it is. This wonder at the fact that anything exists at all led him away from subjectivism and eventually to the Church. Chesterton would write, "Existence is still a strange thing to me; and as a stranger I give it welcome. . . . I find myself ratified in my realisation of the miracle of being alive; not in some hazy literary sense such as the sceptics use, but in a definite dogmatic sense; of being made alive by that which can alone work miracles."
It is part of Father Brown's mission to win people back from egotism and madness to common sense and the astounding marvel of the ordinary ("Self is the Gorgon," Chesterton wrote in Heretics, which also contains one of his most famous paradoxes: "There is nothing that fails like success."). With his "meek impudence," Father Brown challenges both the beggar's despair and the rich man's self-satisfaction. In "The Queer Feet," which is both a masterful example of detection and a social satire, Father Brown chastizes a club of "oligarchs" to whom he restores a thing not worth having, a stolen property they value more than their own souls: "'Odd, isn't it,' he said, 'that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous.'" Chesterton's famous paradoxes are deceptive; they are not intended to point out misty enigmas, but to drive home naked truths.
Chesterton was aware of the unrealism of some aspects of the stories. He confessed to "a good deal of inconsistency and inaccuracy on minor points; not the least of such flaws being the general suggestion of Father Brown having nothing in particular to do, except to hang about in any household where there was likely to be a murder." Father Brown is variously the priest of the church of St. Mungo, then of St. Xavier in Camberwell, then of Cobhole in Essex, and on the dingy outskirts of Scarborough; he also serves in some capacity at the "Deaf School," whatever that is. We never find out why the seductive actress has sent for him in "The Man in the Passage," or why he's in Italy in "The Paradise of Thieves." Father Brown always seems to be on the move, maybe not in search of adventure but always somehow finding it. There is something in the stories that recalls the medieval romance so beloved by Chesterton. One of the first things Brown does is to convert the greatest thief alive, Hercule Flambeau--not to Catholicism, but to detecting instead of stealing. From then on, the tall and dashing Flambeau plays a French Don Quixote to Brown's humble English Sancho Panza, who sees things unswervingly as they are.
Chesterton said that he was interested in truth more than fact. And yet he paid great attention to fact to the degree that it was necessary. He fails only when he is carried away into dogmatism, as in the case where a famous detective (modeled on the great French detective, Vidocq) murders a millionaire out of hatred for the Catholic Church, or when Father Brown refers to an Indian (with uncharacteristic venom) as a "yellow devil." There are remarkable moments of realism, as when a body is suddenly found, and in the hush that follows, the witnesses hear in the background an oblivious world going about its business: "There was a blank stillness for a measurable time, so that they could hear far off a flower-girl's laugh outside Charing Cross, and someone whistling furiously for a taxicab in one of the streets off the Strand." Chesterton, a talented draughtsman, is also able to sketch a personality in a few swift strokes; often they are ludicrous or outlandish, but never dull.
Father Brown says at one point that a crime "is like any other work of art" (recalling Thomas DeQuincey's famous essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts"), and that in any work of art, "the center of it is simple, however much the fullfillment may be complicated." This is in fact true of the stories. Chesterton seems to have started with a central idea and built the story around it; as the central idea is the core, the details and descriptions are minimal. Again, he harkens back to an earlier age of literature, and attends to meaning more than matter--the polar opposite of the modern procedural, in which every detail is accurate and the whole is devoid of meaning or feeling. Just as in the Biblical parable of the loaves and fishes we do not stop to ask what kind of fish was being consumed, Chesterton tells us as little as possible of what we do not need to know. The simple fulcrum on which the story turns may be the fact that a mailman is hardly noticed by most people as a person; that a waiter in a posh club and a man in a tuxedo wear exactly the same uniform; that decapitation was the traditional method of execution in France; or that a document wrong in every respect is more likely to be fake, because an honest error tends to contain some truth.
Chesterton used a good many clichés of detective fiction, from the twin brothers (one good, one bad) to the remittance man sent away to Australia. It hardly matters, however. Terrified and desperate, Christabel Carstairs tells Father Brown in "The Head of Caesar" that "You are more of a mystery than all the others . . . but I feel there might be a heart in your mystery." She is right. He has just sent Flambeau running after the man with the false nose a moment before; when he confesses to her that he did so "Because I hoped you would speak to me," the story suddenly unfolds compassion out of comedy, and for all of its fantasy, becomes psychologically real. In this most human tale shot through with ordinary wishes, mundane failures, and superstitious dread, Chesterton outdoes himself. The nightmarish apparition that haunts Christabel--gliding across the beach, pressing its nose against her window, sitting in her brother's chair--is reminiscent of M. R. James, and even of Kafka (who read and admired some of Chesterton's work). "What we all dread most," Father Brown says, "is a maze with no center." But Chesterton, unlike Kafka, believed he had found an exit from his labyrinth: an objective reality that was miraculous, and a miraculous reality that was objectively true.