Some seven and a half years ago, I was standing in a used book store tucked back into a shadowed corner off of a plaza in Bath, England, waiting for a bus. A blue volume caught my eye—The Complete Father Brown Stories by G.K. Chesterton for £2. I had never heard of Father Brown, but I knew G.K. Chesterton, and once I read that it was in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, I was sold. I started reading it on the plane ride back to the States, and I was delighted.
I finally finished it last month.
In my defense for such an alarmingly long space between starting and finishing, this is a compendium of five separate books (hence the “complete” in the title). Also, I never really sat down with this and read it; it travelled the country with me, in fact, in the backseat of my car as my go-to book for when I had unexpected down time.
The books follow the sleuthing of the Roman Catholic priest Father Brown, tromping his oft-noted unimpressive way through the scandals and horros of early 20th century England. He’s not an answer to but a variant of Sherlock Holmes; Brown has the same keen eye for detail, but he’s in it for the souls rather than the science. Chesterton’s priest is very much a priest first, so most of the stories hinge on a correct reading of personalities and fears rather than a minute detail of tobacco ash.
This is not to say that the minute details aren’t important. One of the things that was so neat about this was the insistent pairing of Father Brown’s spirituality and intelligence; Chesterton was very much hammering the concept that people of faith are not only not stupid, they may in fact be more astute than the people around them because they’re paying attention to what’s going on and what’s not being said. Brown’s strength lies in realizing all of the psychological giveaways people have when things make them nervous or scared or angry, all of which he’s learned by being there with his parishoners in those most intense moments. He’s also learned them by being human himself and having all of these emotions—in “The Secret of Father Brown,” he describes that it is the ability to see the worst in yourself that allows you to see how others tick:
“Science is a grand thing when you can get it; in its real sense one of the grandest words in the world. But what do these men mean, nine times out of ten, when they use it nowadays? When they say detection is a science? When they say criminology is a science? They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect…It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and prentending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious…I don’t try to get outside the man. I try to get inside the murderer.” (497)
I also like that Brown’s sometime-sidekick is Flambeau, who is a reformed jewel thief. It’s so brilliant of Chesterton to have someone who is a walking, talking redemption story winding through these mysteries and crimes, and one of the stories (“The Secret of Flambeau”) is Flambeau passionately defending the idea that no one is beyond saving and and that no one should be categorized as undesirable by who they’ve been. It was one of the best presentations of Christianity I’ve found, and yet it didn’t mention Christ ever at all.
There are definitely some writing flaws here. Chesterton was not perfect, much though I love his writings; some of the ways he gets Brown to a scene are just stretched beyond belief, and if I had had to read about how frumpy and plain and forgettable Brown was one more time, I might have thrown the book at something. And I wasn’t at all impressed with the very last story, “The Donnington Affair”—I felt it was trying to hard to shift into detective fiction, which Brown is but not really. However, those are far and away forgiveable against the wonderfully rich presentation of this Anglican England whose underbelly is so incredibly and brokenly human. Father Brown is a fantastic character, and his observations are great pieces of description and personality. This was always a treat to return to, however long it had been since last I’d been able to read one of the stories. I will delight in re-reading this for at least the next seven and a half years.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars