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The theological equal of Sherlock Holmes.
on July 4, 2001
In the genre of the finely crafted English detective story, Chesterton's "Father Brown" stories are wholesome and stimulating detective tales surpassed by few others, except perhaps Doyle's legendary Sherlock Holmes. In contrast to the arrogant Holmes, however, Chesterton's protagonist is rather quiet, unassuming and modest, and makes an unlikely hero - a catholic priest. Father Brown's simple manner makes you quick to underestimate him, but the startling flashes of brilliance that spill from beneath his humble exterior soon make you realize that he has a firm grasp on the truth of a situation when you are as yet frustratingly distant from it. His perceptive one-liners make it evident that he has a clear insight into something that you see only as an apparently insoluble paradox.
Chesterton has been called the "prince of paradox", and the Father Brown stories are a clear testimony of his fondness for paradox. Ultimately it is not just crimes that Brown must solve, but the paradox underlying them. In fact, not all stories are crime stories - among them are mysterious situations that do not involve criminals, and it is the perceptive insight of Father Brown that is needed make apparent contradictions comprehensible by his ruthless logic. Father Brown is not so much concerned with preserving life or bringing a criminal to justice as he is with unravelling the strands of an impossible paradox. In fact, Chesterton's conception of Father Brown is itself a paradox - both a cleric and a crime-fighter, a priest and a policeman, a representative of God's mercy and an instrument of God's justice, a proclaimer of forgiveness and a seeker of guilt, a listener in the confessional and a questioner in the interrogation.
How a priest could possibly play the role of a detective is explained in the first story, "The Blue Cross". Brown apprehends the confounded criminal Flambeau and explains that his knowledge of the criminal mind is due in part to what he's heard at the confessional booth "We can't help being priests. People come and tell us these things." When Flambeau retorts "How in blazes do you know all these horrors?" Chesterton allows his humble priest to attribute his insight into human depravity to his experience as a priest: "Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose, he said. 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."
But both Chesterton and Father Brown have insight into much more than just human depravity - they are both champions of Catholic orthodoxy. This gives the Father Brown stories a depth not found in Brown's compatriot Holmes. In the course of Chesterton's stories, we are treated to philosophical discussions about catholic theology, such as the relationship between faith and reason. We do not merely meet an assortment of cobblers, blacksmiths, magistrates and generals, but atheists, legalists, secularists, pagans, Presbyterians, Puritans, Protestants and Catholics, all with varying and vying affections for superstition, naturalism, rationalism, scepticism, agnosticism, materialism, anarchism, nihilism, or cynicism. Along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton was one of the few writers in the twentieth century that made an important contribution to English literature that was stamped by Christian principles instead of the prevailing secularism of the day.
Readers who do not share Chesterton's theological convictions will not concur with all his insights, but they must concede that they are enjoyable, profound and stimulating. Somewhat surprising is the occasional use of blasphemous expletives such as "O my God", although generally from the mouths of others than Father Brown himself. And Brown does seem to degenerate more and more into a mouthpiece for Chesterton, with a sermonizing tone not present in the first stories.
But on the whole these are exemplary models of the English crime short story. The Penguin edition contains all the stories from all five of Chesterton's published Father Brown collections. Among my favorites are "The Blue Cross", where Father Brown follows a mysterious trail of clues and engages in some bizarre behaviour and fascinating theological discourse to apprehend Flambeau. "The Hammer of God" is also an outstanding whodunnit, as Brown solves the murder of a man who has been crushed by a huge hammer outside a church, seemingly the recipient of a divine thunderbolt of judgment from heaven. In the process Chesterton shares some thought-provoking insights, such as the memorable: "Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak." Also unforgettable is "The Blast of the Book", which recounts the mysterious disappearance of five men whose only crime was to open a seemingly magical book. Father Brown is quick to unravel the paradox by explaining it as the work of an ingenious prankster.
Father Brown's tongue never fails to produce profound paradoxical gems such as "The point of the pin was that it was pointless." And: "I never should have thought he would be so illogical as to die in order to avoid death." It is Brown's unique perspective that allows him to see what others do not see. When his compatriots are awed at the eloquence of a magistrate's thundering sermon in "the Mirror of the Magistrate", Father Brown remarks: "I think the thing that struck me most was how different men look in their wigs. You talk about the prosecuting barrister being so tremendous. But I happened to see him take his wig off for a minute, and he really looks quite a different man. He's quite bald, for one thing."
With the finely crafted prose, depth of theological insight, and brilliant combination of perception and paradox, Chesterton has created in Father Brown a noble and enduring character, a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes and in some respects his equal and superior. The Father Brown stories are unquestionably worthy of their designation as classics.