The Innocence of Father Brown
249 pages @350 wds/pg
Between the silver ribbon of morning and the green glittering ribbon of sea, the boat touched Harwich and let loose a swarm of folk like flies, among whom the man we must follow was by no means conspicuous—nor wished to be.
"The Blue Cross"
In the cool blue twilight of two steep streets in Camden Town, the shop at the corner, a confectioner's, glowed like the butt of a cigar.
"The Invisible Man"
"You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."
"The Blue Cross"
"I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."
"The Queer Feet"
The Innocence of Father Brown
The not-so-holy mysteries
The Innocence of Father Brown is the first of five collections of mystery stories featuring Chesterton's canny priest. It's probably the best collection and it introduces the holy detective—as well as his sometime opponent, sometime collaborator, Flambeau. But each collection offers some great stories.
I'm very fond of Father Brown—despite several potential obstacles.
For one thing, the plots of these stories are implausible. They are part of the tradition of British murder mysteries that the later American hardboiled school revolted against. Murders are carried out in ridiculously complicated fashions, as no crimes are committed in the real world.
Father Brown is the prototype of the intuitive amateur sleuth (like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and TV's Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote), who runs into murders everywhere he goes and manages to solve the crimes with only one or two clues where thorough, professional investigators are stumped.
Nor is the character of Father Brown fleshed out to make him more sympathetic. We have no idea of his background, his actual age (his elderliness varies in the stories), his parish (he turns up all over the world), or any of his daily life—apart from solving murders and spouting intriguing observations.
And he's a priest, for godsake. An unusual priest, granted. But his main interest in uncovering criminals is not to serve earthly justice but to save their immortal souls.
All this would seem to add up to a ghastly reading experience, especially for the non-religious reader. But it doesn't.
The mysteries are extremely clever on the most superficial level, with several innovations on the classic locked-door mystery and other more novel situations. But on top of that, they involve an understanding of human nature—or at least of how human nature operates in society.
Typically, Father Brown solves crimes by sharing the perpetrators' own insights into human perception, which allow them to commit the deeds and him to uncover them. He sees what others, including the readers, do not, even when it is right before our eyes. When we reach the solution in a Father Brown mystery, we're less likely to exclaim, "Wasn't that smart!" than to wonder, "Of course, it's so obvious—why didn't I see it?"
Not always though. In about a third of the stories I did see the solution coming from a long way off. I suspect though this is because these stories, like the mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe, have become embedded in our culture. The surprise has worn off because the tricks have been replayed so many times in stories, movies and television shows since they were invented by these masters.
What about the religious content though? I prefer to read it as moral content, apart from any denominational standpoint. Interestingly, Chesterton wrote the first volume of Father Brown stories long before he became a Catholic. Even an atheist can appreciate the priest's pointed comments. They are paradoxical, provocative and witty—often profound—just like Chesterton in his non-fiction writing. One of the provocative claims made repeatedly by Father Brown is that true religion is on the side of science and reason, opposed to cheap and self-serving mysticism (what today we would call New Age philosophy).
Another point often made is that the apparent villains deserve Christian charity rather than outraged justice. In "The Chief Mourner of Marne" (from The Secret of Father Brown) he makes a remarkable speech castigating do-gooders who turn against their object of pity when his horrendous crime is revealed:
"We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction.... We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon."
Replace the religious with secular imagery, substitute rehabilitation for salvation, and the supposedly conservative Chesterton is revealed to be of the same mind as the contemporary "bleeding-heart" liberal. (Chesterton, of course, would never accept this substitution.)
You may agree or disagree with Father Brown, but after a few stories you get a good sense of how he understands the world. You also get a good sense of the man—he becomes a lovable character, which is a remarkable achievement given how little we know about him. Perhaps Chesterton would say we don't have to know facts about him if we know him, and that we best know him by knowing what is essential to him.
Is Father Brown an eternal character? In The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown (1987, recommended if you can find it), Martin Gardner predicts that as the years pass the fictional exploits of both Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown will continue to be read and relished. However, while Conan Doyle's stature as a writer and thinker will diminish, Chesterton's will grow, he says.
Here's my own guess: both writers will become virtually unknown except as the names associated with their created characters. And Sherlock Holmes will far outlive Father Brown in the general public imagination. Father Brown will live on however, and Chesterton with them (to his chagrin if he could know it), for a smaller group of aficionados who appreciate the greater literary and intellectual complexity of the stories over the simpler Sherlockian morality tales.
As for now, well, we don't live in the far future. And in the present Father Brown remains a great character of popular fiction. Enjoy.
Selections of Father Brown stories are also available in various volumes. I have two such anthologies, one from Penguin and one from Woodsworth, each called just Father Brown, although the story lineups are different. These and other editions are good starting points, since they offer a choice of the best of the 48 stories from the five first collections, plus three pieces that were never so collected. The stories I would consider essential are "The Blue Cross" (the first Father Brown story), "The Queer Feet", "The Invisible Man", "The Dagger with Wings", "The Worst Crime in the World", "The Blast of the Book" and "The Green Man".
If possible though, get The Innocence of Father Brown. If you like those stories, you'll have four more volumes of great experiences to look forward to.