In The Spotlight: G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to the final edition of In The Spotlight of 2012 – and the first of 2013, depending on where you live and when you read this. I think it’s only right to focus this time on one of the founders of the crime fiction genre G.K. Chesterton. His were not the very first detective stories written but he contributed an important thoughtfulness – and a memorable character too – to the genre. Let’s meet that character today and turn the spotlight on Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown.

The Innocence of Father Brown is a collection of twelve short stories, all of which were originally published separately in The Story-Teller and The Saturday Evening Post. All of them feature Father Paul Brown, a short, nondescript Catholic priest. In this collection there are only a few instances in which Father Brown himself is actively called in to investigate a murder. Instead, he’s usually on the scene because he knows one of the other characters or because he happens to be in the area. For instance in The Secret Garden, Paris police chief Aristide Valentin invites Father Brown, whom he met in the course of another adventure, to a dinner at which there are several other guests. When one of the guests discovers the body of a stranger in Valentin’s walled back garden, Valentin takes charge of the investigation. But it’s Father Brown who puts the pieces of the mystery together.

The Secret Garden features an important element that runs through these stories – the ‘impossible crime’ theme. In that story, the body discovered in the garden is that of a stranger. Nobody knows how it got into the walled garden because a stranger never entered the house and the garden has no outside gate. Father Brown is able to show how it all happened. In The Eye of Apollo, a woman is murdered while she is completely alone. Her death looks like a suicide, mostly because there was nobody nearby at the time she died. Father Brown shows that the murder was carefully planned and not nearly as ‘impossible’ as it seems.

Father Brown’s methods of detection are another element that runs through these stories. He pays close attention to details and when those little details don’t fit in, he knows that the first theory of a crime is the wrong one. For instance, in The Hammer of God, Colonel Norman Bohan is bludgeoned. The only person who’s strong enough to have committed that kind of murder is the local blacksmith, and he did have plenty of motive. But Father Brown notices something amiss about the size of the hammer that was used and that small detail leads to a very different explanation.

It’s more than just a set of physical details though that gets Father Brown’s attention. He’s very much aware of human nature and has real insight into why people commit crimes and the kinds of crimes they’re likely to commit. For instance, in The Honour of Israel Gow, Father Brown investigates the death of Lord Glengyle. Some strange discoveries have been made in the house, and there’s talk that some evil force is responsible. Glengyle lived virtually alone, assisted only by his groundskeeper/servant Israel Gow. Gow is an unusual kind of person and nobody really knows anything about him, so he naturally falls under suspicion of wrongdoing if not murder. But Father Brown uses his knowledge of Gow and of people in general to explain the odd circumstances that surround Glengyle’s death.

It’s Father Brown’s intuition as well as his background in philosophy and his philosophical approach to life that arguably most sets him apart from his contemporary Sherlock Holmes. It’s also those qualities, and his calling as a priest, that give Father Brown an edge as you might say in talking to suspects and criminals. He has a way of getting suspects to reveal secrets they’ve been keeping and criminals to confess what they’ve done.

But Father Brown isn’t the only important character in this collection. Also prominent is Hercule Flambeau. When we meet Flambeau, he’s a master thief and an internationally-known criminal. He’s quick, resourceful and smart. That said though, he hasn’t got Father Brown’s intuition. In The Blue Cross, Father Brown is carrying a silver cross set with sapphires to show to a large gathering of priests. That’s how he first encounters Flambeau and his way of dealing with the thief shows Father Brown’s intuition, observation and good memory. As the stories move on, we learn about further developments in Flambeau’s life, which I won’t spoil by detailing.

But it is just those developments which in a way tie the stories together. Although they were published separately, the group of them do show a story arc in the sense that we learn what happens to Flambeau as his life goes on. One can certainly dip into them here and there and a get full enjoyment from any of the stories. But to really get that continuity, I recommend starting at the beginning and working your way through them sequentially.

Another important element that runs through these stories is Chesterton’s evocative writing style. Here for instance, from The Blue Cross, is a description of a sunset:

 

The gorgeous green and gold still clung to the darkening horizon; but the dome above was turning slowly from peacock-green to peacock-blue, and the stars detached themselves more and more like solid jewels.

 

Readers who prefer a sparer style of writing will be disappointed. But Chesterton’s style paints vivid character descriptions and scenery.

For the most part, the stories aren’t violent although in a few places there are stark descriptions of murder victims. Even with that though, you can’t really call these brutal stories. Certainly they’re not graphic compared to some more modern crime fiction. And I promise – there are no crazed serial killers who prey on beautiful young women.

The Innocence of Father Brown features a quiet, mild-mannered but intuitive and quick-thinking sleuth. The stories paint vivid pictures and feature absorbing intellectual puzzles as well as interesting philosophical discussions. But what’s your view? Have you read The Innocence of Father Brown? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 7 January/Tuesday 8 January – The Cape Cod Mystery – Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Monday 14 January/Tuesday 15 January – Ghost Money – Andrew Nette

Monday 21 January/Tuesday 22 January –  Strictly Murder – Lynda Wilcox

27 Comments

Filed under G.K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown

27 responses to “In The Spotlight: G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown

  1. Thanks for profiling one of my personal favourites Margot. Your readers might like to know the BBC has produced a new series of Father Brown shows to be televised this January. Apparently they’re very likely to be shown internationally.

    • Rich – I’m so glad you reminded me of that upcoming series! I hope it will be available internationally as it looks pretty terrific. Folks, do check out Rich’s great post about this upcoming television series. And Rich, I can see why you like Father Brown as much as you do.

  2. A very nice profile, Margot. I have not read G. K. Chesterton at all and I intend to rectify that. I am not much for short stories, but this might be a good place to start. I do have a copy of The Man Who Was Thursday.

    • Tracy – Thank you – I hope you’ll enjoy Chesterton if you get the chance to try the stories.The Man Who Was Thursday isn’t a Father Brown novel, but you’ll get a good sense of Chesterton’s writing style and some of his philosophical views if you check that one out.

  3. Margot, I love the Father Brown stories (and, my personal opinion, while The Man Who Was Thursday is very good, the Father Brown stories are a much better place to start with Chesterton). You are so right about his command of the language. I have always been deeply moved by the closing line of one of the stories in “The Innocence of Father Brown” – I won’t identify it, because of potential spoilers; Chesterton, after a couple of lines disposing of some major characters in the story, writes, “But Father Brown walked those snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.” Command of the language? I think so…

    • Les – I couldn’t agree more. And yes, that story to which you’re referring is moving anyway and all the more so because of that line. I think one thing I really like about the Father Brown stories is that he is a very, well, human character. I don’t mean ‘human’ in the sense of having faults (‘though he does). Rather, I mean that he isn’t at all completely cerebral. One of the reasons he is able to get people to open up to him I think is that he responds to them as one human to another. I like that about him.

  4. Margot: Father Brown reminds me of myself in appearance. It is a refreshing change from the tall, lean, jut jawed appearances of so many sleuths. He is ordinary and quite happy with his appearance. I probably love him best for his serenity. He solves mysteries without great angst. I wonder if the T.V. series will be able to capture that spirit.

    • Bill – I like it too that Father Brown is not your stereotypical ‘gorgeous guy’ or ‘lean tough guy’ who solves mysteries. He is as you say a serene character and quite content to be exactly what he is. You can’t help but respect that! And I hope the series will capture that.

  5. Mack

    I enjoy the Father Brown stories. They are an interesting contrast to the Sherlock Holmes method of deduction. Chesterton did an amusing lampoon of Holmes in The Absence of Mr. Glass.

    We had students read The Blue Cross and they thought it a very silly story It is interesting in that it establishes Father Brown as kind of an anti-Holmes but as far as the action of the story, I have to agree with them.

  6. Certainly one of my favourite collections of stories especially for their deft combination of plot and theme. Chesterton’s gift for paradox is certain;y seen at something like its best here. And do you know, I’d managed to forget that Father Brown’s first name was Paul! I would rate THE BLUE CROSS, THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE SECRET GARDEN as among the finest stories in this volume. Great overview Margot – thanks.

    • Sergio – Thanks – And I agree with you that These stories really do have that blend of plot and theme but at the same time, Chesterton’s characters are interesting too although not all of them are thoroughly developed. And I think you’re spot on about Chesterton’s skills at paradox. I very much like The Invisible Man and The Secret Garden too. Such neat little twists!

  7. Skywatcher

    I love GKC’s detective stories. They have an unusual quality that sets them apart from most other things in the genre. They are more like fables or dreams, with a sense of heightened reality. The London of THE INVISIBLE MAN for instance is a glittering wonderland reflected in the silver paper of chocolate wrappers, whilst the apartment of one of the characters contains automated mannequins who do menial work like robots in a science fiction story. It makes them endlessly re-readable, but does make an exact adaption for film or TV much harder.

    • Skywatcher – You know it’s interesting you’d mention that almost surreal quality of some of the stories. And you’re quite right about The Invisible Man. I felt rather that way about The Eye of Apollo too, especially in its description of the character of Kalon. As you say, that adds to the stories and I wonder how it will come across on TV adaptations.

  8. Thanks for reminding me of this great series Margot. I have a couple of the books on my shelves but I have really only dipped into them. I really ought to read them all in one go, especially before I watch the forthcoming tv adaptation.

    • Sarah – It is a good series isn’t it? I am hoping that the TV adaptation is a good one and that it’s not long before we’re able to see it where I live. I’ll be interested to see what that’s like.

  9. I always meant to read some Father Brown stories. Is there a good collection of them in print?

    • Richard – I just checked on Amazon U.S., and one can get a paper or a hardbacked edition of The Innocence of Father Brown there. I hope you’ll be able to get a copy. In my opinion that’s thet best collection of the Father Brown stories but of course, that’s only one person’s view.

  10. Charles Hedges

    Sadly the new BBC series simply takes the name of Father Brown and sometimes the titles of the stories to provide an “adaptation” a million miles from Chesterton. Set in the 1950′s, in the Cotswolds, with Mass celebrated in Anglican churches, and Father Brown given a loveable housekeeper and a silly lady aristocrat as companions.

    • Charles – I haven’t been able to see the Father Brown series yet as it’s not available where I live. But I know exactly what you mean about series that are nothing at all like the story. Very rarely is the television series better than the books…

  11. Pingback: The Innocence of Father Brown, by G. K. Chesterton | The Game's Afoot

  12. Adam Jezard

    Father Brown’s name is not Paul, as you seem to have inferred. His initial, mentioned several times, is J. His first name in full is never revealed. The use of the name Paul in the story The Sign of the Broken Sword, is either used to indicate the priest’s size (it is from the Latin for small) or a reference to St Paul, as some sort of seeker of truth, or possibly both.

  13. Adam Jezard

    FYI, I note that in some later editions of the stories, the use of the name Paul is replaced by a pronoun in the story. This is possibly because editors feared readers in a less religious age would not understand the linguistic wordplay of which Chesterton was so fond. Best for now.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s