Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Father Brown

If you read detective fiction but are unfamiliar with G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories there is potential pleasure ahead. From "The Mystical Vision of Father Brown":
Chesterton contends that the detective story, though often sensational and occasionally rude, is unique among popular literary forms for its ability to express “some sense of the poetry of modern life.” It can infuse a plain and dreary city with a heightened sense of Romance; it can turn a lowly cab driver into a figure of supreme importance. Where other genres risk turning haughty or pedantic, the detective mystery “declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as commonplace.” For Chesterton it is ordinary circumstances, not extraordinary ones, that conceal the greatest mysteries—it is ordinary circumstances that are the most extraordinary. ....

Chesterton’s detectives—especially Father Brown—approach mysteries with a preference for the ordinary. Though Chesterton frequently expressed his admiration for the craft of the Sherlock Holmes stories, he still suspected that there was something fundamentally unrealistic about the way the Baker Street Bloodhound went about solving crimes. Chesterton’s own detectives never rely on any special knowledge of the coagulation of blood or encyclopedic familiarity with cigar ash, or a copious awareness of every headline in every paper on any given day. Instead we see them making sense of evidence from a broad familiarity with the common patterns of life and the common natures of things. ....

...Father Brown is a student of human nature and sin—a knowledge he gained from years listening to men in the confessional. He is a longtime observer of the thing most common to man—the heart itself; that body of general knowledge renders him immune to the distractions of extraordinary circumstances. ....

Many great literary detectives succeed by “getting into the mind of a killer,” but according to the prophet Jeremiah, it is the heart of man that is most deceitful, most unknowable. Facts provide a poor path into it because they are singular. Peculiar evidence is specific to this or that crime, but common realities can be observed again and again; they grow into patterns and become basis for intuition. The intuitions of Chesterton’s detectives lead them into the common truth of uncommon circumstances and the extraordinary reality of ordinary signs.

By employing this poetic turn again and again, Chesterton trains his reader to look with a vision that turns the world inside out—a vision that exposes the vacuity of astonishing spectacle and reveals the unexpected mystery of the ordinary. ....