The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton
Originally published in 1911
Collects short stories published in 1910 and 1911
Father Brown #1
Followed by The Wisdom of Father Brown
[…]In thrilling tales such as “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” and “The Hammer of God,” G. K. Chesterton’s immortal priest-detective applies his extraordinary intuition to the most intricate of mysteries. No corner of the human soul is too dark for Father Brown, no villain too ingenious. The Innocence of Father Brown is a testament to the power of faith and the pleasure of a story well told.
A few weeks ago I shared an outline of my challenge to myself to read a work by each member of the Detection Club. The reason for this challenge was that I realized when reading The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards’ excellent history of the Detection Club and the roles the members played in developing the detective fiction genre, that while I knew many of the names involved there were many whose work I had little to no knowledge of.
The most instrumental figures in the club’s founding seem to have been Berkeley and Sayers but being very familiar with their works already I thought it more fitting to start with the first President of the Detection Club, G. K. Chesterton. While I had read a couple of his short stories before they were in the context of a broader, thematic collection and so I felt like I had only a very basic impression of his work.
I asked followers on Twitter and readers of this blog for suggestions about what I should read and you returned a clear verdict that I ought to start with his Father Brown stories rather than his novels. Jonathan O had advised that the earlier volumes are stronger than some of the later ones so I opted to start at the very beginning with the first collection, The Innocence of Father Brown.
While there were Father Brown stories written during the Golden Age of Detection, the character was created several years before that era is commonly regarded as starting. While there are certainly detection elements to be found within a number of the stories in the collection, the style feels more reminiscent of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales in which the clues and deductions drawn from them are often delivered simultaneously. The reader is supposed to marvel at Father Brown’s unexpected ability to perceive the truth rather than beat him to it.
It is interesting to consider the contrast between Chesterton’s hero and the likes of Holmes and Dupin. Where those two men were brilliant to the point of exuding arrogance, Father Brown does not set himself up as an investigator and his manner is mild and unassuming. Indeed when we first encounter him in The Blue Cross the reader would have little sense he was to be the protagonist in a series of short stories – that role appears to be destined for the brilliant French investigator, Valentin.
Valentin feels like an amalgam of those two great detectives, complete with the added authority that comes from his position as the head of the Paris police. In this story he is shown to be highly competent and interestingly rather than diminishing his abilities to make Father Brown seem more intelligent (as I might argue sometimes happens with Holmes in his interactions with the Scotland Yard men), we see him live up to his reputation. What we see is that Valentin is smart but Brown, perhaps unexpectedly, is smarter.
The story is a fun one involving the hunt for a thief who has made his way to England. During the pursuit he comes across Father Brown who is transporting a valuable jeweled cross. Valentin suspects that a tall priest keeping company with Brown may be the criminal in disguise and follows the pair across the city but he cannot understand some of the curious things the pair do on their travels.
It’s an entertaining introduction to the character of Father Brown. The reader should not expect to be dazzled by any brilliant deductions though it is fun to learn the explanations for some of the things that happen.
The second story, The Secret Garden, also involves Valentin as a decapitated body is found in his garden during a social gathering. This one is more of a detective story than its predecessor and it has some clever ideas but I was unhappy with some elements of the solution. In particular, I felt that the motive here was really unconvincing.
The next tale, The Queer Feet, was much more to my taste as Father Brown finds himself in a very exclusive restaurant at the same time that a society of twelve – The Twelve True Fishermen – have their annual dinner. He hears a commotion and intervenes to prevent a crime from taking place.
As with The Blue Cross, this is once again more adventure than detective story. Brown is not acting in response to the observation of a crime scene but rather acts instinctively, based on his reading of people and his knowledge of criminals. It does do a good job of demonstrating his quick wits and of playing with the notion that appearances can be deceptive. It also features the most convincing example of an idea that I have seen used in a number of detective stories, including several times by Agatha Christie.
Perhaps what I like best of all though is Chesterton’s writing which is often very witty. The descriptions of the exclusivity of the setting are very amusing but what I liked most of all was the final statement delivered by Father Brown.
The Flying Stars are a set of jewels that are stolen during a social gathering while the attendees are watching a clown act. There is a nice callback in this story to the first as the thief is, once again, Flambeau (this is not spoiling anything – the story begins with Flambeau reflecting on the incident) and I liked that once again this is a story that showcases the personality of Father Brown. In particular, I appreciate the way he advocates for one suspect and then chooses to resolve this problem.
It is a shame given how much I enjoy some aspects of the resolution to this story that it contains some elements that I would describe as outdated and offensive. Nothing here is exceptional to the period in which it was written but there were several things that just didn’t set well with me: not least the merriment of the party at the idea of a performer blackening their skin with soot and Father Brown’s own statement that he had done so to amuse a group of children in the past.
The Invisible Man concerns the problem of how a man is murdered when the entrances to his house are under observation by the police. The best part of the story is the background to it as we learn the tale of the young woman and the two suitors who wanted to win her hand and, rejected, went off to make their fortunes. I am a little less convinced by the solution to this one and I feel that it may have benefited from a greater gap from a previous story in this collection. Still, it’s quite readable and while I think that solution is found quite quickly, it is at least clued.
The Honour of Israel Gow sees Father Brown and Flambeau, now an amateur detective, head to Scotland to investigate the death of an aristocrat and the strange condition of his family home. It’s a strange story, in part because the crime here is less clearly defined than in the previous stories but the explanation is clever and demonstrates an interesting sort of logical reasoning.
The next story, The Wrong Shape, is an example of a dying message story in which a man is found dead having written a message that appears to contradict himself claiming that he has committed suicide but also that he was murdered. It’s a well-told story, albeit one with a very simple solution that I have seen replicated. Perhaps not the best challenge in the collection but a good read regardless.
The Sins of Prince Saradine (which very nearly became The Sins of Prince Sardine courtesy of autocorrect) is a very entertaining tale in which Flambeau receives an invitation to meet with a prince of poor repute who is keen to learn about his past criminal exploits only for things to take an unexpected turn. There are some very amusing moments of which my favorite is easily the list of the things Flambeau had packed for his journey, and I think that this is a very cleverly structured tale.
I had actually read The Hammer of God some time ago as part of an anthology I never got around to reviewing. I wasn’t expecting great things in revisiting it so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a much more interesting story than I remembered. It concerns the death of a man who had been struck on the head with incredible force using a hammer.
What I liked most about this story was the logical way Father Brown points out the contradictions in some elements of the crime and reaches his conclusions. This is one of the best examples of a logical puzzle in the collection and while I don’t feel that an aspect of the ending is entirely deserved, I liked it a lot overall.
The Eye of Apollo concerns the bizarre death of an heiress who seems to have been part-way through writing her will before leaping to her doom. As a puzzle this story is quite nicely constructed, hingeing on a simple but clever idea. That solution is clued very neatly, making this one of the more rewarding cases in the collection.
The next story, The Sign of the Broken Sword, marks quite a departure in style from the other stories in this collection. It begins with Father Brown taking Flambeau to see the tomb of a fallen military hero and after making some cryptic remarks he starts to explain the man’s history, particularly the circumstances of his death during a conflict with Brazil.
Structurally this story is unusual because Brown begins the story possessing all of the information about the scenario – it’s the reader who is left to learn exactly what the mystery is that we must unravel and what the implications of that are. It’s a really interesting story – one that shows great insight into human nature and warfare – and the way it concludes is, for me, the most interesting character moment Father Brown has in the entire collection.
The final story, The Three Tools of Death, is also preoccupied with matters of psychology but I felt that it was less successful – even though the solution is much more surprising. The story concerns the death of a philanthropist known for his jolly demeanor.
Suspicion immediately falls upon one figure but we soon learn that the situation is not so simple as it appears. The explanation Chesterton comes up with is certainly imaginative but I found it too far-fetched as a sequence of events to be entirely credible and I would be shocked if anyone reached the solution. Still, I did appreciate the explanations for the actions of the various suspects and I found it entertaining in its ambition.
Reflecting on the collection overall, I was impressed by the diversity of story types on offer. Some are quirky or feature lower stakes, such as the theft of some jewel, while others feature much grander and more serious crimes. This keeps the collection from feeling repetitive and while I think Chesterton sometimes struggles to come up with a convincing rationale for his priest-sleuth to be involved (I am thinking most of The Queer Feet), the character’s actions and behavior often helps smooth over those doubts.
One of the preconceptions I had of Chesterton’s work based on my few previous experiences was that they were quite serious stories, in part because of the heavy moral and philosophical themes he includes. Instead I was surprised to find that he could be quite a light and witty writer and while those elements never dominate the stories, they often provide some relief to the often quite serious stories.
The other thing that surprised me was that in several of these stories Father Brown makes a very late appearance in the proceedings. This does tie in quite nicely to the book’s broader themes though and his interjections are typically interesting.
Finally, another request for your assistance with my project: while I have titles for the next few authors picked out I will need to plan ahead for some. Does anyone have any suggestions for what I should try to seek out by Lord Gorell? Money is very much an object so preferably something I have a hope of tracking down for a reasonable price (ie. less than $40).
The Verdict: An interesting, if uneven, collection of stories.