James E. Person Jr. celebrates G. K. Chesterton’s immortal crime-solver
‘Between the silver ribbon of morning and the green glittering ribbon of sea, the boat touched Harwich and let loose a swarm of folk like flies, among whom the man we must follow was by no means conspicuous — nor wished to be. There was nothing notable about him, except a slight contrast between the holiday gaiety of his clothes and the official gravity of his face.”
In this manner, on a September day 100 years ago, G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) began his story “The Blue Cross” for readers of the English magazine The Storyteller. Those opening words, evoking the wings of morning and an untroubled sea — but with a hint of lurking danger — remind us that September 1910 was the twilight of a placid lull in Western history, a last breath of what scholar Bertram D. Wolfe called the “grand century of peace and progress” before the armed conflagration of 1914–18 erupted and set in motion our long time of troubles.
Chesterton could not have known it at the time, but in “The Blue Cross” he introduced one of the immortal characters of 20th-century literature. Not “the man we must follow” of the story’s opening paragraph: That would be merely Aristide Valentin, “the head of the Paris police and the most famous investigator of the world.” But before the story concludes, Valentin and one of the most notorious thieves in Europe meet their match in an unlikely figure: a stumpy, moon-faced Roman Catholic priest and maddeningly perceptive crime-solver known as Father Brown.
This rumpled, clumsy detective-priest appeared in 52 short stories, 48 of them collected in five volumes during Chesterton’s lifetime. The strongest of the stories are the earliest — “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” “The Wrong Shape,” “The Sins of Prince Saradine,” “The Honour of Israel Gow,” and seven others that all appeared in the first collection, The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), a work the prominent pseudonymous American mystery writer Ellery Queen called “the miracle-book of 1911” and “one of the finest volumes of short stories ever conceived and written.” These tales were written when inspiration was strong upon Chesterton, and the key concept of Father Brown and his potential were fresh and exciting to the author.
Each of these early stories is a tightly plotted gem, with fresh dialogue, surprising twists, gorgeous scene-painting, and — most important — a main character who solves and thwarts crimes not by CSI-style clue-chasing or Sherlockian inductive reasoning but by his knowledge of the passions that motivate men. The key to Father Brown’s powers of insight lies in the fact that among his daily duties is hearing the confessions of his flock. “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?” he asks one astonished would-be robber — his greatest antagonist (and in time his best friend), Hercule Flambeau.
Another unlikely advantage held by the little priest is that in physical appearance he looks for all the world like the sort of hapless rube “whom anybody could lead on a string to the North Pole,” in Valentin’s dry assessment. While he is an observant man, a discerning listener, and a witty conversationalist, Father Brown is forever being underestimated and snickered at by his betters. Not surprisingly, then, his foremost trait is humility. In the story “The Flying Stars,” as guests at a country house prepare for a hastily thrown-together Christmas play, someone finds a paper donkey head and playfully slips it over the head of Father Brown, who “bore it patiently, and even found some private manner of moving his ears.” Father Brown exemplifies the fact that humility, the disregarding of one’s dignity, is an attribute of the great and the godly. “Humility is the mother of giants,” he declares in another story. “One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”
Puritanical self-righteousness is far from his heart, but he sees it often, in the lives of the religious chest-thumpers, Eastern mystics, and metaphysical go-it-aloners who often prove to be the guilty parties in Chesterton’s stories. Here, as in life, it is often those who talk the loudest about their own enlightened selves and firsthand knowledge of God who are in fact the farthest from God in their inner lives and outward conduct.
In “The Queer Feet,” Father Brown, having convinced Flambeau to repent of a daring crime and return a silver service he had cleverly stolen, challenges a group of sneering clubmen to consider for a moment: “Odd, isn’t it . . . that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man?” He is asked whether he actually caught the man who attempted to steal the clubmen’s silverware. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” This passage was famously quoted by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited (1945) to illustrate the peculiar nature of divine grace, the fact that — as the proverb has it — “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Chesterton managed to smuggle the good news of divine grace into his stories in such a manner that it largely slips past the watchful dragons of his readers’ imaginations, which are ever on guard for any sort of potted, Sunday-schoolish “lesson of the week.”
Which is not to say that all the Father Brown stories are successful: The last four volumes represent a distinct falling off. Those in 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) are progressively weaker, showing signs of the haste in which they were written for the magazines that originally published them, along with a sense that the earlier thrill was gone.
While there are still periodic stretches of the old brilliance for readers who persevere, most of what is encountered is not in the same league as the earlier stories. Perhaps the most serious complaint that might be leveled is this: Although Father Brown still solves and prevents crimes, he often does so not through his knowledge of the human heart but simply by astute observation and the puzzling-out of clues. This may be satisfying to some readers, but for others the element that made the earlier stories so memorable is missing.
Those early stories, in particular, reflect in lavish detail Chesterton’s talent and training as a visual artist. His descriptions of twilit skies, lush gardens, and peaceful rivers evoke the wonder of childhood upon first beholding these things. The beauty of creation hints strongly at a creator, sovereign and infinitely just. “Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star,” remarks Father Brown to the robber Flambeau, in “The Blue Cross.” “Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’”
Today, readers continue to enjoy these stories, smiling quietly at the ignorant stuffed shirt in “The Flying Stars” who declares to Father Brown “that though he himself had broader views, he could respect those whose creed required them to be cloistered and ignorant of this world.” Western literature will not have done with these stories while brass is strong and stone abides. As prominent British mystery writer P. D. James wrote in her preface to the superb collection Father Brown: The Essential Tales (2005): “The Father Brown stories are among the finest crime stories ever written. . . . [They] will continue to entrance, entertain, and solace readers inhabiting a world infinitely more complex and dangerous than was the England in which Chesterton wrote.”
– Mr. Person is the author of critical biographies of Russell Kirk and Earl Hamner, as well as a longtime book reviewer.