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Lost & Found: Justin Taylor on G. K. Chesterton
Gilbert Keith Chesterton—whose nicknames include both “The Apostle of Common Sense” and “The Prince of Paradox”—may have never sounded so much like Walt Whitman as in his 1901 essay “In Defence of Detective Fiction,” wherein he commends the genre for being “the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.” The sentiment is a charming one, but more than passing strange, coming from a man whose polemics on behalf of Christianity, Empire, and tradition led his contemporaries to accuse him of a nostalgia for the Middle Ages.
Chesterton trained as a painter at the prestigious Slade School in London, yet he would make his name and his living not as an artist but as a man of letters. All the letters. During his lifetime, Chesterton produced volumes of light verse, essays, biographies, satires, an autobiography, theological tracts, his own magazine (G. K.’s Weekly), books of literary criticism, a half dozen novels (including The Man Who Was Thursday), and fifty-odd short mystery stories featuring a Catholic priest with a flair for what Edgar Allan Poe called “the art of ratiocination.”
Father Brown debuted in 1910, and for many years was the most famous fictional detective after Sherlock Holmes (who debuted in 1887, when Chesterton was thirteen years old). Brown was modeled on a really existing (though not actually mystery-solving) friend of Chesterton’s, Father Joseph O’Connor, but I prefer to think of Brown as a kind of funhouse-mirror image of his author. Chesterton stood six foot four and tipped the scales at just under three hundred pounds. He kept a bushy mustache and often strolled about in a cape, with a cigar in his mouth and a cane—if not a swordstick—in his hand. Few photographs of him contain all of him; he probably never slipped into (or out of) a room unnoticed in his life. This is all in starkest contrast to the diminutive Brown, “round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling” in his rumpled vestments, with “eyes as empty as the North Sea.” His manner is unassuming to the verge of blandness, and he often comes off like a miscast extra in his own stories—at least, that is, until he opens his mouth and solves the mystery of the hour. Most authors are mice who write in order to see themselves as elephants, but here we have something much more interesting and rare—an elephant who dreamed of being a mouse.
Father Brown is a keen observer and listener, but his real specialty is a kind of inductive moral logic informed by a deep understanding of evil gained during countless hours served in its close proximity—as a hearer of confessions, as a comforter to those who have been dealt life’s harshest blows. Brown is typically called in to work cases that seem to have a supernatural dimension, but he refuses categorically to entertain any explanation that involves the occult, black magic, superstitions, ancient curses, evil ghosts, or anything else to which a good Christian ought not give credence. As he explains to a bemused onlooker in “The Curse of the Golden Cross”: “It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand.” What he means is that reason and faith are not mutually exclusive categories, but reinforce and amplify each other. It also doesn’t hurt that, as one character remarks in “The Arrow of Heaven,” “Somehow you’re the sort of man to whom one wants to tell the truth.”
Because he’s a priest, all the other characters in a given story will tend to make two assumptions about him—first, that even if nobody called him, he has a basic right to hang around and do as he likes; second, that he is some kind of walking anachronism with no understanding of worldly things or the exigencies of modern life. Father Brown always takes full advantage of the first assumption, and he always upsets the second. This is necessarily to the chagrin of the assorted academics, Bolshevists, Darwinists, journalists, Nietzscheans, spiritualists, dandies, poets, policemen, cult leaders, anarchists, atheists, industrialists, swindlers, murderers, Americans, and crooks Brown encounters—all of whom Chesterton relished hoisting by the petards of their own presumptions, hypocrisies, predilections, and newfangled ideas.
The “original” Father Brown stories are collected twelve apiece in The Innocence of Father Brown (1911) and The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914). The next book, The Incredulity of Father Brown, did not appear until 1926, followed by The Secret of Father Brown in 1927 and The Scandal of Father Brown in 1935. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before him, Chesterton had become the slave of his own success. Doyle threw Holmes over Reichenbach Falls in the hopes of being rid of him, but eventually—succumbing to popular pressure and the need for a sure cash fix—contrived to bring him back. Chesterton, who would have seen Holmes die and return before publishing his first Brown story, never made such a mistake. Several introductions to collected or selected Father Brown anthologies relate that whenever his wife told him money was running low Chesterton would reply, “That means Father Brown again.” David Stuart Davies, introducer of the Wordsworth Classics Complete Father Brown Stories—the best and the cheapest edition I have come across, if not the most handsome or durable—adds the colorful detail that this utterance was accompanied by a sigh.
A general consensus exists that the first twenty-four stories are superior to what came later. Most Selected Father Brown editions that I’ve seen draw sparingly from the latter three volumes. Some simply reproduce Innocence and Wisdom in their entireties, and leave it at that. The main critique of the later Brown tales is that they wax didactic and feature flimsier mysteries, because the author is palpably less interested in the stories than in their morals. (In the twelve years between Wisdom and Incredulity Chesterton officially converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism.) This is a fair complaint, to be sure, but as a full and final judgment it is insufficient. In an essay called “The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton,” Jorge Luis Borges—who knew a thing or two about paradoxes, and who revered Chesterton’s work—gently chides The Scandal of Father Brown for its lack of “felicity” to the detective form, but he is quick to assert that two entries in Scandal—“The Blast of the Book” and “The Insoluble Problem”—are “stories I would not want excluded from a Brownian anthology or canon.” (Appallingly, neither story is contained in any Selected that I’ve seen.) But the biggest problem with the wholesale dismissal of the latter three books is the implicit suggestion that the first two are above critique.
Chesterton’s work is peppered with stunning moments of racism and anti-Semitism, only some of which can be excused (if still not forgiven) on account of the time and place in which he lived. For two of the most egregious examples, one need look no further than “The Wrong Shape” from the first book and “The God of the Gongs” from the second. But since that unfortunate aspect of the work is more or less evenly distributed throughout the Brown catalog, let me return to my original point, which is that the late work contains much to admire and enjoy. The stories are stellar pieces of literature, theology, and rhetoric, if not always precisely of detective fiction. Incredulity is an especially strong collection—“The Arrow of Heaven,” “The Miracle of Moon Crescent,” “The Ghost of Gideon Wise,” and “The Oracle of the Dog” are all first-rate mystery tales. The same cannot be said of “The Dagger with Wings” or “The Doom of the Darnaways,” two of my personal favorite examples of the kind of Brown story that so understandably irks the mystery purists. The premises are precarious, the only action takes place offstage, the real endings come in the middle, and no pretense whatsoever is made of pursuing—much less capturing—the killers. They’re unbalanced, to say the least, but all the more arresting and valuable for their peculiarities, which is not necessarily to say flaws.
In the Borges essay mentioned above, he suggests the six major rules for working in the mystery genre. The last one he gives is this: “A solution that is both necessary and marvelous.” In addition to being a supremely good rule for all fiction, not just detective stories, this is notable for being an uncannily Chestertonian description of Christianity. So if you go into a Brown story looking for a mystery and can’t seem to find one, it doesn’t mean that one isn’t there. All the small mysteries of this world are solved, sooner or later, or else cease to matter. It is only the large one that abides above our heads, emphatically pressing and perennially insoluble; an investigation that can—and should—never be closed.