Posts Tagged ‘Detective Stories’

The Father Brown detective stories

September 29, 2020

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

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