The Innocence of Father Brown
G. K. Chesterton
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Father Brown is a short, unpresuming, non-descript Catholic priest who has a knack for being present at mysterious murders and thefts. As a priest, he has heard a lot of confessions, so that his innocence is only on the surface. His understanding of the psychological and spiritual nature of Man, coupled with his keen observation and deductive reasoning enables him to solve the most mysterious of crimes. At the same time, his desire to lead people to repentance causes him to confront the criminal himself in such a fashion that they have the option to continue in their crime, or repent and begin a new life.

The Blue Cross: Father Brown ensures a remarkable occurrence happens at each stop on his travels with the great thief Flambeau, allowing the the detective Valentin to catch up to them and apprehend Flambeau.

The Secret Garden: Father Brown discovers that the atheist Valentin murdered an American considering donating a large sum of money to the Catholic church by observing broken twigs far from a tree and the critical observation that the beheading was done so that head that was found would be assumed to be that of the body.

The Queer Feet: Father Brown prevents Flambeau from stealing the ornate silverware of the Twelve Fishers by noticing that the footsteps upstairs sometimes walked like that of a loafer, a gentleman, and a waiter, a strange pattern that was solved with the observation that a gentleman’s attire is very similar to a waiter’s. Flambeau played both parts masterly, but was prevented from absconding with his prize by Father Brown’s astute actions.

The Flying Stars: Flambeau steals costly diamonds from a Christmas party by dressing up as the harlequin (which requires lots of flashy glass) in a classic Christmas skit, in the process actually beating up a real policeman, but is turned from a life of crime when Father Brown tells him where his, currently relatively moral, thefts will lead.

The Invisible Man: Father Brown solves a murder where no one saw anyone enter or leave an apartment complex by observing that the postman is effectively unseen, his presence is so routine and usual that people who are looking for someone entering or leaving may not even consider the postman.

The Honor of Israel Gow: The death of a nobleman is investigated by Father Brown and the now private investigator Flambeau. The piles of snuff, candles with no sticks, and the manuscripts with the name of God removed are not dark evil, but merely Israel Gow, who was promised all the gold in the house taking only and exactly what he was given.

The Wrong Shape: Father Brown’s noting that death of famous writer who had taken ill must have been a murder because the pieces of paper that he had written on were cut inconsistently, causing the doctor who killed the writer because he loved the writer’s wife, to confess the murder to Father Brown.

The Sins of Prince Saradine: Prince Saradine acquired many enemies who wanted to kill them and had a brother who blackmailed him. Father Brown discovers that after Saradine learned of an former exploit of Flambeau’s, Saradine gave his property to his brother who had finally bled him dry and lives as his brothers’ butler, thus causing his enemy to think his brother was the real Saradine.

The Hammer of God: Father Brown shows a (presumably Episcopal) curate that his failure to pray humbly on the ground, instead of high on the spire, lead him to take God’s justice out on his brother, and by his actions, Father Brown leads the curate to repentance.

The Eye of Apollo: Father Brown reveals that a priest of the new religion of sun-worshipers kills a blind woman by building a romantic relationship with her, then calling to her that the elevator was ready and then soundlessly taking it to the next floor so that she falls to her death (this was before automatic doors), but that he was cheated out of the inheritance that she had left him by her sister who had left a fountain pen deliberately incompletely filled so that her signature would not appear on the will.

The Sign of the Broken Sword: Father Brown deduces that a brilliant general leads a suicide charge in order to hide body that he killed in inevitable dead bodies, but after the magnanimous opposing general released his prisoners, the general’s brigade hung him, since they had figured out his crime, even though the public did not know. Father Brown does not reveal his discovery so that the general’s son would not be disgraced.

The Three Tools of Death: Father Brown clears the servant of a recovered alcoholic of his master’s murder, by showing that there was too much evidence for a murder, but the right amount of evidence for a foiled suicide of the master whose outward appearance of happiness and optimistic world view did not prevent his hopelessness. The suicide ultimately succeeded because his daughter thought that the servant was trying to kill her father and cut the rope that held him to the attic window that the servant had intended to tie him up and secure him from himself with.

The twelve stories in this volume carry a certain Victorian feel in the complicated sentence construction and the use of pithy adjectival phrases that succinctly describe a type of person or segment of society. (“With a French combination of reason and violence Flambeau simply said ‘Murder!'... [the French national sentiment may have changed somewhat since the 1910 publication of this volume])  On the whole, however, Chesterton is direct, albeit in a little fancier language than is common in the early twenty-first century. The plot, however, has no such directness, with the initially described scene becoming stranger and stranger until Father Brown uncovers the key at the end.

The Father Brown stories, are similar to the much more well-known Sherlock Holmes stories in their revelation of impenetrable mysteries, but have different underlying assumptions on how they can be solved. The key idea of Sherlock Holmes is that we can solve difficult problems if we are observant and ruthlessly logical. Father Brown shares this Modernist view in his approach to problem solving, as he always solves his problems with keen observation and deductive reasoning, but these play less of a role than with Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ deductions are based purely on objective facts, while Father Brown incorporates more a qualitative knowledge of humanity into his decision making. (“I tell you, I knew he had done it, even before I knew what had been done. ... There came a crash and a scream down the street, and the priest of Apollo did not start or look around. I did not know what it was. But I knew that he was expecting it.”)  While solving the mystery is the end for Sherlock Holmes, it is a means to an end for Father Brown, who ultimately hopes to redeem criminals.

Indeed, while the art of Holmes is the purpose of Conan Doyle’s stories, Chesterton often has a moral message, for which the plot is merely the housing. Sometimes this is outlined in a speech (as in Father Brown’s speech at the end of the first story) but often it is more subtley embedded in the tragedy that unfolds because of a particular world view. For instance:
Sherlock Holmes is strictly about events; the characters themselves do not usually grow or change, although occassionally the reader’s perceptions of them do.  In contrast, the Father Brown stories are very much about people, with the mystery as a means to painting a picture of the hearts of Man. These are fun stories to read, filled with vivid descriptions and witty insights into human nature, as well as deeper themes for those inclined to pursue them.
Review: 9
The Father Brown stories do not define a genre as much as Sherlock Holmes does, simply because logic and reason is the fundamental part of the mystery genre. Father Brown’s focus being much more as a subtle evangelist of the Catholic faith than a brilliant logician, the stories are not so remarkable. However, they are a good illustration of how Christian themes can be effectively embedded into great stories.

Characters

Father Brown Ordinary and forgettable Catholic priest. Humble, yet extremely effective at both solving mysteries and changing hearts.

“Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest? ... He grows a forest to hide it in, " said the priest in an obscure voice. “A fearful sin.”

“I leave [the decision whether to turn yourself in] to you because you have not gone very far wrong, as assassins go. You did not try to fix the crime on the smith when it was easy, ...  That was one of the gleams that it is my business to find in assassins.”
Flambeau Brilliant French thief. Committed his crimes in new and creative ways, but was ultimately persuaded to go honest when Father Brown showed him how his life would start of well, but his crime would spiral into ever more ugliness until it destroyed him. As a detective, he seems to mostly exist to bring Father Brown into the story.
Valentin Brilliant French head of police. Such a staunch supporter of atheism that he murdered a man for considering a large donation that would help the Catholic church.


Copyright © 2006 by Geoffrey Prewett