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