Sunday, September 19, 2010

Father Brown

James E. Person Jr. appreciates "Father Brown at 100" in the current issue of National Review:
.... This rumpled, clumsy detective-priest appeared in 52 short stories, 48 of them collected in five volumes during Chesterton’s lifetime. The strongest of the stories are the earliest — “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” “The Wrong Shape,” “The Sins of Prince Saradine,” “The Honour of Israel Gow,” and seven others that all appeared in the first collection, The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), a work the prominent pseudonymous American mystery writer Ellery Queen called “the miracle-book of 1911” and “one of the finest volumes of short stories ever conceived and written.” These tales were written when inspiration was strong upon Chesterton, and the key concept of Father Brown and his potential were fresh and exciting to the author.

Each of these early stories is a tightly plotted gem, with fresh dialogue, surprising twists, gorgeous scene-painting, and — most important — a main character who solves and thwarts crimes not by CSI-style clue-chasing or Sherlockian inductive reasoning but by his knowledge of the passions that motivate men. The key to Father Brown’s powers of insight lies in the fact that among his daily duties is hearing the confessions of his flock. “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?” he asks one astonished would-be robber — his greatest antagonist (and in time his best friend), Hercule Flambeau.

Another unlikely advantage held by the little priest is that in physical appearance he looks for all the world like the sort of hapless rube “whom anybody could lead on a string to the North Pole,” in Valentin’s dry assessment. While he is an observant man, a discerning listener, and a witty conversationalist, Father Brown is forever being underestimated and snickered at by his betters. Not surprisingly, then, his foremost trait is humility. .... Father Brown exemplifies the fact that humility, the disregarding of one’s dignity, is an attribute of the great and the godly. “Humility is the mother of giants,” he declares in another story. “One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” ....
As I indicated,the essay is in the current, October 4, issue of National Review. If you are a Father Brown fan, the essay is worth seeking out. If you haven't yet enjoyed the stories, they are in the public domain and available online.

I've always enjoyed the stories and have several collections of them, including an early omnibus of all the stories. A brief examination of my library turned up several "best of" volumes commending the Father Brown stories. H.R.F. Keating's Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books [1987] includes The Innocence of Father Brown as one of the hundred. In Raymond T. Bond's Handbook for Poisoners [1951], Chesterton is represented by "The Quick One." Ellery Queen included "The Secret Garden" in 101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories 1841-1941.

National Review: Father Brown at 100