The Innocence of Father Brown

innocence of father brownAm I supposed to feel guilty for loving G.K. Chesterton, in the same way that people tend to make excuses for loving Kipling? He was neither conservative nor progressive; he tended not to believe that people thrived very well on the bitter food of isms. He was large and clumsy and absent-minded, and sometimes would send his wife telegrams saying things like “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” to which she would reply, “Home.” He was an orthodox Christian, and engaged in friendly debate all his life. He loved paradox, and his writings are full of wit and humor even, or especially, when they are treating the most serious matters of the human mind and heart. He never wrote an idle word. His criticism, his apologetics, his novels, plays and detective stories are all equally crisp, and all equally insane, set in a world where conventional ways of seeing things are useless.

This is perhaps particularly true of his fiction. His novels (The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill are favorites) and his stories about the little priest with a face “as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling and eyes as empty as the North Sea” are masterpieces of the strange. I re-read The Innocence of Father Brown recently, and I was struck all over again by the humor and theatricality of his crime, and the utter seriousness of his wit and theater.

The stories follow a sort of formula, if stories so wildly divergent can be said to do so. A crime occurs. In several cases the crime is perpetrated by the fabulous French criminal Flambeau:

Almost every morning the daily paper announced that he had escaped the consequences of one extraordinary crime by committing another. He was a Gascon of gigantic stature and bodily daring; and the wildest tales were told of his outbursts of athletic humour; how he turned the juge d’instruction upside down and stood him on his head, “to clear his mind”; how he ran down the Rue de Rivoli with a policeman under each arm. It is due to him to say that his fantastic physical strength was generally employed in such bloodless though undignified scenes; his real crimes were chiefly those of ingenious and wholesale robbery. But each of his thefts was almost a new sin, and would make a story by itself. It was he who ran the great Tyrolean Dairy Company in London, with no dairies, no cows, no carts, no milk, but with some thousand subscribers. These he served by the simple operation of moving the little milk cans outside people’s doors to the doors of his own customers.

Into this crime steps Father Brown, occasionally called in but usually by chance. He sees what no one else sees, because he is looking where no one else ever looks: at the mad and improbable design of the universe. The stories end with Father Brown’s quiet, sometimes even unheard appeal to the criminal for penitence and forgiveness, and it’s often that oddly private little moment that makes the entire story what it is. Father Brown’s value as a detective lies not in his little grey cells, but in his sense of the moral structure of the universe: things are thus and not otherwise, so when I saw this thing happen I knew it could not be according to plan.

“How in blazes do you know all these horrors?” cried Flambeau.

The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent.

“Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose,” he said. “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? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.”

“What?” asked the thief, almost gaping.

“You attacked reason,” said Father Brown. “It’s bad theology.”

There are many wonderful and memorable stories in this collection, each different. My own favorite is, I suppose, if I’ve got to choose one, “The Blue Cross,” but “The Invisible Man,” “The Flying Stars,” and “The Queer Feet” are all equally splendid. The idea of a club in which the main distinction is to be utterly undistinguished (except for the magnificent fish-knives) is so absurd as to be solemn. You can see Chesterton’s influence on dozens of other writers; I daresay we have all been reading Chesterton without knowing it for years, and all the better for us. This is the innocence I prefer:

“Oh, hang it all!” said the young man, “a gentleman never looks like a waiter.”

“Nor a waiter like a gentleman, I suppose,” said Colonel Pound, with the same lowering laughter on his face. “Reverend sir, your friend must have been very smart to act the gentleman.”

Father Brown buttoned up his commonplace overcoat to the neck, for the night was stormy, and took his commonplace umbrella from the stand.

“Yes,” he said; “it must be very hard work to be a gentleman; but, do you know, I have sometimes thought that it may be almost as laborious to be a waiter.”

And saying “Good evening,” he pushed open the heavy doors of that palace of pleasures. The golden gates closed behind him, and he went at a brisk walk through the damp, dark streets in search of a penny omnibus.

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15 Responses to The Innocence of Father Brown

  1. Yes, some years ago I bought a complete edition of Father Brown stories, and fell in love with the charm, that’s the key word, I think, the charm. You remind me that though I have often and often re-read my Sherlock Holmes books, it’s now time perhaps to give equal time to Father Brown.

    • Jenny says:

      I do find them very re-readable! They are very compelling as puzzles, and the wit and personality make them enduring, to my mind.

  2. I have yet to “meet” Father Brown or indeed read anything by G.K. Chesterton, a gap in my reading that I am well aware of. I am certain he is an author I am going to enjoy.

    • Jenny says:

      Father Brown is a wonderful place to start! His nonfiction is delightful, but I would also really recommend The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s weird but wonderful.

  3. Lisa says:

    I’ve known of Father Brown for years, but haven’t yet read the stories. Earlier this year though I won a collection of them in a drawing, so I’m looking forward to meeting him! I’m curious about his influence on other writers. I know Dorothy Sayers was a big fan. So I’d vote no on the guilt!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh good (since I wasn’t really feeling guilty) :) He and George Bernard Shaw were good friends, and he was also close friends with Hilaire Belloc, among many others. He was a very interesting man and very prolific. I do think you’d enjoy Father Brown.

  4. Mel u says:

    I have read a few of his stories and liked them. I sort of see his unfortunate activity with the Germans during W W I I as the product of complete silliness on his part and not meant maliciously., maybe he just liked the Nazi uniforms.

    • Jenny says:

      Hi Mel! I think you must mean Wodehouse? Chesterton died in 1936, before the war, and certainly condemned Hitler’s rising regime as soon as he knew of it. He was absolutely anti-Fascist. (He also talked about a Jewish “problem”, like many of his contemporaries, and advocated a Jewish state. But Zionist Jews saw him as an ally.)

  5. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I love that telegram! I also love Father Brown stories – so no guilt for author or writings from me!

  6. Alex says:

    My thesis supervisor introduced me to Father Brown many years ago now and I have a copy of the complete works somewhere in the house. But, you’ve made me realise just how long it is since I opened it. I think I’ll go and look for it right this minute.

  7. ARE we supposed to feel guilty for loving Chesterton? I definitely don’t, and I do feel apologetic about how much I love the Just-So stories and things. I don’t know that he and I would have been friends if we’d met in life, but I adore how wonderfully weird he is.

    (He did talk some shit about Oscar Wilde though. He needn’t think I’ve forgotten about that.)

  8. Thad Colon says:

    But on the whole these are exemplary models of the English crime short story. The Penguin edition contains all the stories from all five of Chesterton’s published Father Brown collections. Among my favorites are “The Blue Cross”, where Father Brown follows a mysterious trail of clues and engages in some bizarre behaviour and fascinating theological discourse to apprehend Flambeau. “The Hammer of God” is also an outstanding whodunnit, as Brown solves the murder of a man who has been crushed by a huge hammer outside a church, seemingly the recipient of a divine thunderbolt of judgment from heaven. In the process Chesterton shares some thought-provoking insights, such as the memorable: “Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” Also unforgettable is “The Blast of the Book”, which recounts the mysterious disappearance of five men whose only crime was to open a seemingly magical book. Father Brown is quick to unravel the paradox by explaining it as the work of an ingenious prankster.

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