7.5.10

G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown Tales


G. K. Chesterton is best characterized, according to P. D. James, as “a man of letters. All his life he earned his living by his pen and he was as versatile as he was prolific” (2005, xi). Indeed, Chesterton wrote over 4,000 essays, hundreds of poems, and over a hundred books; he also contributed to another two hundred texts. Most readers know him today for his detective short stories. Chesterton’s Father Brown tales were popular when first published but were overshadowed by the much sought-after Sherlock Holmes stories.

This Edwardian writer possessed a vast range of knowledge. As Dale Ahlquist, the President of the American Chesterton Society, points out, “Chesterton was equally at ease with literary and social criticism, history, politics, economics, philosophy, and theology.” Ironically, it is not his writing on these subjects for which he is most remembered today, but rather his short stories featuring the amateur detective, Father Brown.

On the face of it, there are two no more different detectives than the bumbling clergyman, Father Brown, and the brilliant intellectual, Sherlock Holmes. The “harmless little priest” with the “foolishly large head” who is “utterly insensible to the social figure he cut” is usually overlooked and dismissed by other characters (29, 158). And unlike Holmes who dominates the events of the stories, Father Brown appears as if by accident, often introduced as a minor, inconsequential figure.

But Father Brown is no simpleton. In story after story, his penetrating wisdom, observant eye, and deep insight into the human heart surprise both readers and characters. When asked how he knows so much about vice, Father Brown answers, “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?” (21-22). His compassion for others and his understanding of human frailty make him an endearing and inspiring character.

Chesterton envisioned great potential for the mystery story. In his essay, “The Ideal Detective Story,”he wrote: “The essence of a mystery tale is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true. There is no reason, in logic, why this truth should not be a profound and convincing one as much as a shallow and conventional one.” His own stories explore social conditions and spiritual truths; his ideas resonate long after the story is finished. As James reminds us, Chesterton was one of the first mystery writers to realize that detective fiction “could be a vehicle for exploring and exposing the condition of society, and for saying something true of human nature” (2009, 46).

Each Chesterton story presents a series of mysterious and inexplicable incidents. In his essay, “Errors about Detective Stories,” he argues:
The true object of an intelligent detective story is not to baffle the reader, but to enlighten the reader; but to enlighten him in such a manner that each successive portion of the truth comes as a surprise. In this, as in much nobler types of mystery, the object of the true mystic is not merely to mystify, but to illuminate. The object is not darkness, but light; but light in the form of lightning.
In the typical Chesterton story, lightning strikes the reader through paradox. Seemingly absurd and contradictory statements prove to be true. In “The Three Tools of Death,” Father Brown claims that “the noose, the bloody knife, and the exploding pistol, were instruments of a curious mercy. They were not used to kill Sir Aaron, but to save him” (161). He then explains how each of these tools was used to save Sir Aaron from committing suicide.

The quality of Chesterton’s writing is outstanding, “a style richly complex, imaginative, vigorous, poetic, and spiced with paradoxes” (James 2009, 46). Chesterton describes events, ideas, and characters in a truly memorable and thought-provoking way.

What readers love about these stories is the engaging character of Father Brown, the marvellous quality of the writing, the witty use of paradox, and the intriguing plots.

Chesterton, G. K. Father Brown: The Essential Tales. Introduction by P. D. James. New York: The Modern Library, 2005.

James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.