The Father Brown detective stories

I greatly enjoyed reading a complete edition of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories., which were published from 1910 through 1936.  I’d read some of them of them before, but now I’ve read the whole canon, except for a couple published after his death.

Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, they have a real or apparent crime, clues to the solution buried in the details of the story and then the solution revealed.  But while Holmes is presented as an eccentric genius, Father Brown is as unassuming little round-faced man whom everybody underestimates.

And while Holmes is a master of arcane knowledge, such as being able to differentiate different types of cigar ash, Father Brown’s deductive powers are based on his knowledge of human nature, and whether a poet, an actress, an Oxford don, an Anglican vicar or some other human type are behaving in character or not.  In one story, the solution hinges on understanding the motivation of a dog.

Father Brown says he understands criminals because he has the ability to tap into the criminal in himself and imagine what the criminal in question would do.  As he explains, “You see, I had murdered them all myself…. I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

It is a kind of spiritual exercise, he says.

Brown’s abilities are shaped by his experience as a priest and confessor.  When asked by Flambeau, a master criminal who has been masquerading as a priest, how he knew of all sorts of criminal “horrors,” Father Brown responds: “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?”

He also states how he knew Flambeau was not really a priest. “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.”

The stories contain rational solutions of the mysteries and explanations of how Brown worked them out.  He always emphasizes rationality.  Some stories poke fun at initially skeptical characters who become convinced of a supernatural explanation for some strange occurrence, but Father Brown easily sees the perfectly ordinary, natural explanation.

He says he is able to see through superstition and fake mysticism precisely because he is familiar with the actual supernatural and true mysticism.

Chesterton’s agenda is to advocate for Christianity and specifically for Catholicism.  He was formally converted to Catholicism in 1922,  He does this not by arguing for Catholicism, but by debunking alternatives to Christianity and by showing Father Brown’s intellectual and moral superiority.  The priest alone of all the characters is more interested in the criminals’ repentance than their punishment

I was taken aback by Chesterton’s prejudices, which are unacceptable today.  Any Jewish character in these stories is up to no good.  Negroes are regarded as savages.  Father Brown remarks of a mixed-race suspect that he is especially dangerous because “he has the brains of a European and the instincts of a cannibal.”

He is not multi-cultural. A Muslim minor character is a one-dimensional fanatic.  A Hindu mystic seeks negation and oblivion and nothing more.  Father Brown says Asian religions are idolatrous and twisted.  “I have seen wicked things in a Turkey carpet,” he says.

There are two excuses for Chesterton’s attitude.  First, he could regard Asians and black people as Other because, in his time and place, he didn’t have an opportunity to meet any.  Also, it was common even among  educated people of his day to look down on Negroes, Jews and, for that matter, Catholics.

Back then many thought there was a significant genetic difference between northern and southern Europeans.  Chesterton’s Father Brown did protest bigotry against Mexicans and Italians.

On the other hand, Chesterton and his detective hero did have sympathy for ordinary working people, in contrast to his contemporaries, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, whose sympathies were with what’s now called the professional-managerial class.  Shaw once said he was a socialist not because he was a champion of the working class, but because he wanted to abolish it.

Chesterton accepted human nature as it is and wanted reforms that would benefit people as they are, not transform them into something supposedly better.

His Father Brown character is no respecter of wealth or social status.  Some of his stories hinge on big shots not noticing people they regard as their social inferiors–a postman, a waiter, an office clerk.

In one story, two millionaires are murdered and a Communist college professor is the chief suspect.  But it turns out that the murder was committed by someone else for purely mercenary reasons.  In that story, Father Brown remarks that a certain chemistry professor who is working on poison gas for the military is worse than a murderer.

In two other stories, suspicion falls on militant labor leaders, but the culprits turn out to be crooked businessmen.  Father Brown says that Bolshevism is a great evil that must be resisted, but equally so are business monopoly and the worship of money and success.

Of course you can enjoy these stories without worrying about Chesterton’s larger views.  He was a marvelous descriptive writer and he created a memorable character.  That is why these stories have stood the test of time and inspired so many movies and TV dramas.

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One Response to “The Father Brown detective stories”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I have not read the book but the wife and I have watched the entire TV series on PBS and really enjoyed it.


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