The Incredulity of Father Brown – G.K Chesterton
Of the so-called Premier League detective fiction writers, I have found G.K Chesterton the hardest going. I persevere because, on the whole, he produces some well-written, satisfying stories. My problem, I think, is that they are heavily laced with the author’s Catholicism, something I could do without, and his pontifications can make the stories overlong.
This book was published in 1926 and is a collection of eight stories, all featuring his unobtrusive priest-cum detective, Father Brown, and all but the first story, The Resurrection of Father Brown, having been published previously in Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine between 1924 and 1925, other than The Ghost of Gideon Wise which appeared in Cassell’s Magazine. The fact that most of the book has appeared elsewhere in short story form makes for a bit of a disjointed read. Brown is introduced, at length, to the reader each time and each story takes a bit of time to get going.
The Catholic priest has an unerring knack of being at the right place at the right time. Using his powers of observation and heightened sense of intuition, Brown solves a mystery which is beyond the ken of mere mortals. Father Brown is content to unmask the killer rather than see that justice is done. No one seems to be arrested or brought before the courts. Brown’s role is to provide a rationale for a series of events, some of which strain credulity, which have been set in train by a convoluted, some might say over-convoluted, plot. As Chesterton said in 1930, “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”. That, in a nutshell, is what a Father Brown story is all about.
There is also an element of the supernatural in the stories, a sense of forces or spirits which are operating at another level and impelling the unfortunate characters towards their doom. Brown, whilst acknowledging that there is such a thing as the devil and that miracles do happen, takes great delight in stripping a series of inexplicable events of their patina of the preternatural. The Catholic priest emerges as the least superstitious of the characters, perhaps Chesterton’s way of affirming the strength and veracity of the church.
Of the eight, my favourite was The Doom of the Darnaways, featuring a family curse which doomed the seventh heir at the seventh hour of the day. But all was not what it seemed, and the priest unravelled the mystery. I had read The Oracle of the Dog before and enjoyed it more second time round. Rather like Conan Doyle, Chesterton resurrects his sleuth in dramatic circumstances in the opening story but, unlike Conan Doyle, hadn’t bothered to kill him off in spectacular style in an earlier story. Opening a collection of stories with the death of your hero is always an anticlimactic way to go.
What makes Chesterton’s stories for me is his use of language and his wit. I enjoyed his portrayal of the Manichaean forces of capitalism and bolshevism in The Ghost of Gideon Wise. And as an opening to a story, The Arrow of Heaven, you can’t get better than this; “It is to be feared that about a hundred detective stories have begun with the discovery that an American millionaire has been murdered; an event which is, for some reason, treated as a sort of calamity.” Quite.