G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific author of biographies, essays, articles, novels (of which the best known is The Man Who Was Thursday, 1907), and plays and poems on many subjects, but is probably best remembered by most people now for his fifty-two Father Brown stories, published in five volumes: The Innocence of Father Brown (1910), The Wisdom of Father Brown (1913), The Incredulity of Father Brown (1923), The Secret of Father Brown (1927) and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). Father Brown (surely the first of the clerical detectives) with his simple face "as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling" may look like a clumsy and dumpy, if amiable, little clergyman, but he has a very shrewd understanding of human behaviour. As he explains, "A man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil" - and he certainly isn't. It is this mixture of outer innocence and deep understanding and experience of evil that makes him so interesting. As he says in The Hammer of God (one of his best stories): "I am a man, and therefore have all devils in my heart".
The plots of the stories can certainly be far-fetched, and Chesterton himself described the first of them as "very slight and improbable". It introduced characters like the "colossus of crime" Flambeau. "It is quite certain," we are told, "that he invented a portable pillarbox which he put up at corners in quiet suburbs on the chance of strangers dropping postal orders into it". Such stories may be dated, but they are still strong in surprises: don't be amazed if the murderer turns out to be the Chief of Police. Or if Flambeau is converted from crime by Father Brown, and ends up as a fellow crime investigator and Father Brown's "only friend in the world".
Chesterton never lost his sense of fun and he didn't take the stories too seriously, finding that he could turn them out in a few days using notes on the back of an envelope when he needed the money. He himself admitted, " I have myself written some of the worst mystery stories in the world." Yet a number of them can still be read with real pleasure, even though, as Chesterton pointed out there is "a good deal of inconsistency and inaccuracy on minor points; not the least of such flaws being the general suggestion that Father Brown had nothing particular to do, except to hang about in any household where there was likely to be a murder".
Father Brown was based on a real Irish Roman Catholic priest, Father John O'Connor of St Cuthbert's, Bradford (to whom The Secret of Father Brown is dedicated), whose truth, explained Chesterton, was "stranger than fiction", and who guided Chesterton through his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922. Father Brown isn't a copy of his physical appearance or nationality, but shares his spiritual understanding and experience of the evil in the world. What intrigued Chesterton was the chance of "constructing a comedy in which a priest should appear to know nothing and in fact know more about crime than the criminals". And it is this that still intrigues readers today. The later Father Brown stories, written after Chesterton had converted to Catholicism, are thought by some to be a little more dogmatic and less fun than the earlier ones, but I can't say I was aware of this.
Some of the Father Brown stories became the subject of a 13 part TV series in 1974, and have been issued on DVD. Made by ATV in the UK, and featuring Kenneth More (who had been reluctant to take the part but was eventually won over by Lew Grade), they show careful concern for period detail, but don't work too well as the emphasis was shifted from Father Brown to the unlikely characters with whom he was involved. Chesterton himself had written that "in Father Brown it was the chief feature to be featureless. The point of him was to appear pointless ... his commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with unsuspected vigilance and intelligence". This makes him a difficult character to play, and Kenneth More's initial concerns proved well founded.
The American Chesterton Society has an informative website about Chesterton and all his other works (although not much about Father Brown). They certainly wouldn't agree that it is only his Father Brown stories that are still remembered today! The site includes the complete first Father Brown story, The Blue Cross, so here's a chance to try it out.
Stephen Kendrick "borrowed" the character and included a young Father Brown in Night Watch, a story in which he meets up with Sherlock Holmes.
The Penguin The Complete Father Brown is still in print, and it includes all the Father Brown books.
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