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.

Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards

Originally Published 2016

The English country house is an iconic setting for some of the greatest British crime fiction. This new collection gathers together stories written over a span of about 65 years, during which British society, and life in country houses, was transformed out of all recognition. It includes fascinating and unfamiliar twists on the classic ‘closed circle’ plot, in which the assorted guests at a country house party become suspects when a crime is committed. In the more sinister tales featured here, a gloomy mansion set in lonely grounds offers an eerie backdrop for dark deeds.

Though I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to short crime fiction in the past these British Library anthologies curated by Martin Edwards have helped turn me around on the possibilities of the form. Over the past year I bought most of these collections and have been slowly working through them.

Murder at the Manor takes the iconic country house setting as its focus, presenting us with sixteen tales from authors from a variety of backgrounds and styles. In some cases however the setting plays little role in the story itself and few convey any real sense of those impressive historic homes.

The result is a collection that can feel a little uneven compared to some of the others in the range. A few stories such as The Problem of Dead Wood Hall and The Long Shot left me quite unimpressed. There are some stories though that I can strongly recommend that make this worth dipping into.

Several of the most memorable tales are inverted crime stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Well which features some truly horrific moments and James Hilton’s The Perfect Plan which builds to a thrilling conclusion. Those who prefer lighter mysteries are likely to enjoy E. V. Knox’s very amusing story The Murder at the Towers which is consistently amusing, parodying the country house mystery very effectively.

The highlight of the collection is an incredibly tense thriller by Ethel Lina White, An Unlocked Window. In that tale a group of nurses have locked themselves in a house while the Doctor is away fetching supplies because there is a serial killer who has been targeting nurses as his victims. The moment in which the protagonist realizes that they have left a window unlocked is really chilling but it is topped by a superb reveal that pushes the story into a thrilling conclusion. While this is not normally my type of read, I think it is done really well and it is likely to stay with me for a while.

Though I do feel that the stories in this collection are less consistent than some of the other volumes the British Library have published, stories like these certainly make this worth dipping into. I would suggest though starting with Resorting to Murder or The Long Arm of the Law, both of which I rate highly, unless the subject matter of this volume particularly appeals.

Continue reading “Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards”

Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards

Resorting to Murder
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2015

The idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.

In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.

There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.

As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Law in terms of the general quality of the stories collected.

Continue reading “Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards”

Serpents in Eden edited by Martin Edwards

Serpents in Eden
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2016

Life commitments have caused me to need to find something I can dip in and out of at pretty short notice so I have been picking up more of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

Serpents in Eden is a collection of crimes set in the countryside though the setting is more critical in some stories than others where it is merely background. As always Martin Edwards has selected a diverse collection of stories on his theme and provides superb introductions, both to the collection as a whole and then to the authors who wrote the individual entries featured.

It is a pretty interesting collection though a little less well balanced than others published as part of this range. I particularly recommend the very short Clue in the Mustard which is quite amusing at points and Murder by Proxy which has a clever solution.

If this volume’s theme appeals to you then I’d suggest picking it up as though there are always a few misfires, most of the volume is pretty entertaining and does a good job of preventing variations on a theme.

On to the stories…

The Black Doctor by Arthur Conan Doyle

Or perhaps more accurately: the Doctor of Indeterminate Swarthy Ethnicity. This is the story of a country doctor who has established a successful practice in Lancashire. After many years of bachelorhood he finally proposes to a local woman but abruptly calls off the wedding. The narrative is structured around the trial of a man believed to have killed him.

There is no detective or sleuth to follow – this is more in the line of an unusual story being related but it is quite enjoyable, if a little slight.

Murder by Proxy by M. McDonnell Bodkin

An entertaining read, even if some aspects of the crime are easy to deduce. The story concerns a man who is found dead in his study having been shot in the back of the head. Paul Beck is called in to investigate the case by the man’s son who has become the principal suspect.

Forget about who did it – the killer’s identity is clear enough – as the focus here is really on how the deed was done. The solution is quite clever though Beck never really proved his case, rather the guilty party confesses. Still, it is fun and I’d be interested to see out some other Beck adventures.

The Fad of the Fisherman by G. K. Chesterton

This didn’t capture my imagination at all and so did not make for the best first impression for Chesterton’s work. A murder takes place on a remote island near the country home of Sir Hook. While the mystery didn’t grab me, this is one of the stronger entries in the collection for incorporating countryside elements.

The Genuine Tabard by E. C. Bentley

I quite enjoyed this story in which a pair of American tourists show our sleuth a historic tabard they purchased at a vicarage while driving through the country though it is a little slow in the telling. The scheme is worked out well but the explanation is a little too detailed.

The Gylston Slander by Herbert Jenkins

A solid if unremarkable story about a vicar receiving anonymous letters laced with innuendo about his daughter and the curate.

The Long Barrow by H. C. Bailey

A woman reports that she is being followed by someone everywhere she goes. At first Reggie Fortune seems disinterested but when she adds that someone is littering the path with dead animals he agrees it seems suspicious.

An interesting concept and approach but in my opinion the ideas are not well realized.

The Naturalist at Law by R. Austin Freeman

You would think that given my love of inverted mysteries I would have got around to trying an R. Austin Freeman already. Well, this isn’t an inverted mystery but it does whet my appetite for when I do so.

The story involves an apparent suicide of a man in a ditch. The inquest cannot reach a conclusion but Dr. Thorndyke is certain it is murder and conducts his own investigation. The question is why does Dr. Thorndyke think it is murder and how will he prove it. The answers are clever.

A Proper Mystery by Margery Allingham

This is a very short story set in a public house several weeks after a vegetable show was ruined when the produce is trampled by cattle. Tensions are still high in the village as some of the contenders suspect each other for orchestrating the disaster. The resolution of the story is quite charming, if expected.

Direct Evidence by Anthony Berkeley

A simple and dragged out case in which a man is accused of the murder of the woman he is having an affair with. The solution to why the suspect would have murdered her in plain sight of the village is obvious from the start and so the only question is what precise evidence will Sheringham be able to assemble to prove it. A disappointment.

Inquest by Lenora Wodehouse

A very different story that strikes a decidedly interesting and provocative note at its end. The narrator is travelling by train when he encounters a familiar face he is unable to place at first. It turns out that they recognize each other from an inquest into the death of a man who seems to have been murdered by his nephew.

The plot of the story is interesting enough to make this worth recommending but the tone of the ending is very different and there are some aspects of the solution that feel quite original. A highlight in the collection, though the countryside elements are minimal.

The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White

A young woman escapes assassination and her would-be killer is locked away. Several years later he emerges from prison, placing the woman in danger. How will she and her friends evade the killer’s notice.

While this is an interesting premise and I did like some of the turns of phrase and details in the novel, it didn’t resonate with me as I had hoped. That is a shame because there is some excellent writing here.

Clue in the Mustard by Leo Bruce

A short but amusing story that sees Sergeant Beef solve his first murder (though you wouldn’t really know that if it weren’t mentioned in the preface to the story). An elderly woman is found dead in her garden to some surprise as she had seemed in relatively good health. While it appears like natural causes were responsible, Beef is able to demonstrate it was murder and explain how it was managed.

The method used is quite ingenious (and I am pleased to say that I guessed most of it) but the best part is Beef’s unusual reasoning for how he works it all out.

Our Pageant by Gladys Mitchell

The final story is incredibly short but also one of my favorites in the collection. It involves a village performance of a morris dance which has created some tensions between several of the men of the village. When someone ends up dead we are left wondering who may have been responsible.

It’s a clever little tale with a great reveal that is all the more impressive for being told in just a few pages.