Am 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.