The Father Brown stories28 August 2014 | by G.K. Chesterton, reviewed by Raymond Edwards
Return of the clerical gumshoe
Chesterton’s Father Brown holds an unexamined but stubborn place among the Great Detectives; the reissue of the five collections of stories featuring him is a chance to ask the embarrassing question, Is he, are they, any good?
First, a little background. The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown were written before the Great War, appearing in 1911 and 1914; the next, The Incredulity of Father Brown, appeared in 1926; and the last two, The Secret of Father Brown and The Scandal of Father Brown in 1935, the year before Chesterton’s death. My initial hunch had the first two volumes as pick of the crop, and later ones potboiling compounds increasingly eked out with the implausible whimsy that, for me at least, spoils The Man Who Was Thursday (although that, counter to my ostensible thesis, dates from 1908). But in fact the whimsy is there from the start; if anything, it decreases with time.
Both pre-war volumes appeared when Chesterton was still an Anglican (he converted only in 1922, aged 48); but from the start their atmosphere was self-consciously Catholic. Many of the stories turn on similar conceits: what we thought was one thing (a war hero, a murdered man, a worthy pillar of the community) is in fact another (traitor, stage-conjuror, thief). The puzzle can typically be solved by an immediate and violent reversal of expectation rather than the painstaking detection and following of clues, which (when they even exist) are usually merely arbitrary. Of the actual business of detection there is little or nothing: Fr Brown is, in fact, not much of a detective, and serves mainly as a mouthpiece for Chesterton’s views on human nature.
Alongside impostors and disguise, Chesterton in these early books is fascinated by inherited deformity, monstrous vegetation, and fungoid growths. But the lure of decay and aberrance is in check by incarnational Christianity. He has a febrile hypersensitivity to light and colour (he trained as a graphic artist, remember), and an intense feeling for their moral resonance, which yields some remarkable descriptions of landscape. The landscapes are in fact usually the best-observed and most finely drawn characters in the story.
A full dozen years stand between the second collection and the third, Incredulity. This draws rather obviously on Chesterton’s experience of foreign travel. By now, the aristocrats are mostly decayed and melancholy, and most of the resolutions are never properly spelt out, merely hinted at: but the atmospheric writing remains very fine indeed. By the fourth volume, Secret, the generous whimsy of the early stories and the implausible but entertaining travelogues of the third book are exchanged for the common currency of detective fiction of a certain age – squabbles over inheritance, star-crossed lovers, and shameful secrets. Of the detective story as usually conceived, there is little or none. Clues are first concealed and then flourished like conjurors’ rabbits, villains are exposed by a Brownian monologue, but rarely caught. Meanwhile we welcome Fr Brown’s appearance only because it promises the dissolution of whatever tired paradox or unlikely puzzle Chesterton has set up.
The stories in the final volume, Scandal, are mostly weightier in theme – industrial unrest, bolshevism, wicked capitalists grinding the faces of the poor; the old whimsy is gone. So is any remaining inventiveness of device and motive. Fr Brown is made to climb up on to several of Chesterton’s hobby horses (distributism, the wickedness of the modern drinks trade) where he makes an unsteady spokesman. There are good things said about sin, and forgiveness, and reason and faith and unbelief, and these are the chief pleasure of the resolutions, which are otherwise commonplace and improbable by turns.
Are these any good as detective stories? I presume a good detective story should present a puzzle, and a series of clues to its solution, and that the clues should be given to the reader as they are to the fictional detective. The fun lies in trying to get to the answer before he or she does. Chesterton’s conundra are merely improbable hooks on which he can hang his familiar hat (the paradoxical jester with a savagely serious point). He talks much of seeing into the human heart, but most of his characters are ciphers, types illustrating some (often tendentious) socio-theological point. The period detail is fun, for those that like such things; amid a good deal of fine-grained colour and texture, there is a very small amount of casual, pantomime anti-Semitism, and once or twice glimpsed attitudes towards non-white people that are positively hair-raising. The stories as a whole are suffused with a benign tolerance of human failing and a generous expectation of forgiveness and repentance. But they are Chestertonian paradoxes played out in dumb show, rather than detective fiction in any normal sense. Yet they remain readable and entertaining.
What of Fr Brown himself? His ministry is a strangely peripatetic one. He oscillates between parishes: Cobhole in Essex, Camberwell, Putney, all then in the Diocese of Southwark; Greenford (in Westminster), Scarborough (Middlesbrough) and, in one story, he is (of all things) a prison chaplain in Chicago; later, he is a missionary in South America. He shows no signs of belonging to a religious order; as far as we can tell, he is a plain diocesan clergyman who crops up in at least three different dioceses doing ordinary parish work. Clearly bishops were more flexible then. His methods are a sort of applied theological anthropology – an observed science of human wickedness. In fact, Fr Brown’s whole habit of detection may be reckoned in breach of Ronald Knox’s Sixth Commandment of detective fiction: “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.” Take this away from him, and he has nothing except his stage props, a round face and a shabby umbrella.
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