The mysterious appeal of Father Brown

Fr Brown on BBC TV

One of the most enduring creations of the the eccentric English poet-philosopher GK Chesterton was the whimsical Father Brown, who breaks several of the rules of the detective-fiction genre, writes Raymond Edwards.

- Review by The Tablet

Chesterton’s Father Brown holds an unexamined but stubborn place among the Great Detectives; the reissue of the five collections of stories featuring him is a chance to ask the embarrassing question, Is he, are they, any good?

First, a little background. The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown were written before the Great War, appearing in 1911 and 1914; the next, The Incredulity of Father Brown, appeared in 1926; and the last two, The Secret of Father Brown and The Scandal of Father Brown  in 1935, the year before Chesterton’s death.

The whimsy is there from the start; if anything, it decreases with time.

Both pre-war volumes appeared when Chesterton was still an Anglican (he converted only in 1922, aged 48); but from the start their atmosphere was self-consciously Catholic.

Many of the stories turn on similar conceits: what we thought was one thing (a war hero, a murdered man, a worthy pillar of the community) is in fact another (traitor, stage-conjuror, thief). The puzzle can typically be solved by an immediate and violent reversal of expectation rather than the painstaking detection and following of clues, which (when they even exist) are usually merely arbitrary.

Of the actual business of detection there is little or nothing: Fr Brown is, in fact, not much of a detective, and serves mainly as a mouthpiece for Chesterton’s views on human nature. 

He has a febrile hypersensitivity to light and colour (he trained as a graphic artist, remember), and an intense feeling for their moral resonance, which yields some remarkable descriptions of landscape. The landscapes are in fact usually the best-observed and most finely drawn characters in the story.

A full dozen years stand between the second collection and the third, Incredulity. This draws rather obviously on Chesterton’s experience of foreign travel.

The stories in the final volume, Scandal, are mostly weightier in theme – industrial unrest, bolshevism, wicked capitalists grinding the faces of the poor; the old whimsy is gone. So is any remaining inventiveness of device and motive. Fr Brown is made to climb up on to several of Chesterton’s hobby horses (distributism, the wickedness of the modern drinks trade) where he makes an unsteady spokesman.

There are good things said about sin, and forgiveness, and reason and faith and unbelief, and these are the chief pleasure of the resolutions, which are otherwise commonplace and improbable by turns.

Read full article: The Father Brown stories (The Tablet)

RELATED:

Father Brown: the empathetic detective (The Guardian)

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