G. K. Chesterton’s mystery writings featuring the crime-solving parish priest Father Brown stand today as some of the most influential in the entire history of genre. To refer to a plot-point as “Chestertonian” is a term so ubiquitous that even someone who has never read his works understands the paradox of hiding something without really hiding it at all — clues snuggled neatly in the boundary between information which isn’t explicitly made known and information which certainly must exist. With G. K. Chesterton’s writing inspiring crime writers all the world over, from slivers of Chestertonian plotting in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds to entire series inspired by Father Brown’s exploits in Japan’s A Aiichirou, he’s an author who almost needs no introduction.
As one of the founding members of the Detection Club, as well as its first president, G. K. Chesterton was one of the first authors whose stories started to show the seeds of the style of plotting the Golden Age of Crime Fiction came to be known for. Tricky plots and multi-layered misdirection started to replace basic criminal precaution, foreshadowing became more salient, and the “impossible crimes” began to mature past their pre-Golden Age crudeness — it is thanks to G. K. Chesterton that the purely naturalistic, rational mysteries of the 19th century would slowly become replaced with imaginative plotters and clever criminals.
However, though The Innocence of Father Brown can be seen flirting with a kind of plotting that would go on to dominate the puzzle plots of the 1920s to 40s, it cannot be said that the notion of “fairplay” has actually yet fully formed. Often times, Father Brown solves the crimes through information hitherto unbeknownst to the reader, thought processes that sometimes don’t even begin to approach rational or concrete (in one story, Brown argues that a man is innocent of a theft merely because he is a Socialist!), or simply divining the answer from mid-air. Nonetheless, the seeds for the Golden Age are clearly here, and it’s easy to see how Chesterton preempted (or even created) many of the elements of what would become the “fairplay” detective novel half a decade before its formal existence. Many famous Golden Age mysteries, such as Ronald Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”, Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, and John Dickson Carr’s The Four False Weapons have borrowed, adapted, reworked, inverted, subverted, reimagined, and reconstructed tricks from Chesterton’s tales, so much so that it can be said Chesterton invented many of the forms of misdirection for which the genre would go on to be known.
As a weaver of yarns of crime, Chesterton was forward-thinking. Many gimmicks appear in these stories which represent Chesterton and Chesterton alone and, in that way, create so many stories that even 110 years later can be seen as original. Occasionally, a story few of the stories may show their age in such ways as a unique concept clearly mimicked ad nauseum from Chesteron’s oeuvre.
The famous highlights of the stories, however, are not merely the tricky plots, but also the prose, which is defined by its whimsy, humor, and most prominently those “paradoxes” for which Chesterton is so famous. Sometimes these “paradoxes” are more like “dichotomies”, but regardless of how you classify them they stand out in Chesterton’s writing as the most straightforwardly evocative, often relying on contrast or irony to convey a lot of information in very little space. Lines like “bad clothes which were too good for them” are often quotable.
These paradoxes also inform the most unique aspect of Chesterton’s mystery plots: those “intuitive reasoning” stories where the exact form the mystery takes isn’t quite apparent until the denouement. These tales differ from most detective stories in that they don’t focus on a well-defined criminal problem, instead dealing with Father Brown’s investigation into apparent paradoxes of character, nature, or behavior, and offering a decidedly reasonable explanation from his intuition. Such examples include the pre-eminent “The Queer Feet”, in which Father Brown must figure out the mystery behind “feet which run in order to walk” and “walk in order to run”, and “The Honour of Israel Gow” , in which Father Brown is called upon to explain the bizarre behavior of a man who may or may not have lived and may or may not have died. These stories stand out as the most unequivocally “Chestertonian” in the Father Brown canon.
But the series is not perfect and without flaw. A major percentage of the charm in these stories can be found in their religious preoccupations. The stories concern themselves intimately with themes of religious proselytizing, with practically every murderous culprit being an atheist who simply needs to see the graces of God and Christianity, with humanity often explored through the lens of Roman Catholicism. Those who find this charming will be sure to enjoy the stories, but those who aren’t religious may find themselves forced to reckon with the fact that the author clearly thought that people like themselves were statistically guaranteed to be murderers. The series’ perspective on religion and humanity can be argued to occasionally be naïve in that uniquely religious way. For stories wherein the large portion of the appeal is in those musings, those who find themselves at the butt-end of Chesterton’s theocentric moralizing may feel somewhat alienated.
But, putting taste aside, I can’t help but respect Chesterton for his typical brilliance. The man was clearly imaginative in the extreme, and even the social commentary can be alienating, when I manage to look at the heart of his best tales I can see why Chesterton’s name has lived on in respect to detective fiction, and not just for his theology…
“The Blue Cross” has “The Greatest Detective in the World”, Frenchman Aristide Valentin on the trail of the world’s greatest thief Flambeau. Flambeau is a man who, although notably over six feet tall, was a master of disguise and a thief of great (and often humorous) exploits, such as picking up two policeman and running down the street with them under his arms. Detective Valentin has tracked Flambeau to London, and suddenly starts to find various bizarre occurrences like a priest throwing soup at a wall, smashing a window and then immediately paying for the damages, swapping the signs for the nuts and the oranges in a storefront and the containers for the salt and sugar in a restaurant… all of which he suspects will lead him to Flambeau.
Originally published as “Valentin Follows a Curious Trail”, this clearly relies on the subversion of you believing that this is a Valentin story, with Valentin standing in as “the Great Detective” like Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes, when it is in fact a Father Brown story… a pretty open secret in a collection of short stories with “Father Brown” plastered all over the cover.
This is the first story with the very Chestertonian problem of “mysteries with an unclear form that don’t make sense until the end”, though the solution doesn’t work as well with the foreknowledge that this is a Father Brown story. A good introduction to the principle cast of Father Brown, but as a mystery story it only functions as intended if you read it when published and absolutely no later. Still, there is quite a bit of cleverness here establishing Chesterton’s fondness for paradox in the mechanics of the crime.
“The Secret Garden”, then, is the cleaning up of “The Blue Cross”‘s subversion to make room for Father Brown to formally take over the series as feature sleuth. The Great Detective Aristide Valentin is hosting a dinner party where the guest of honor is Julius K. Brayne, a man who seems to belong to all religions, an indecisive agnostic who donates moneys to all movements of all churches. However, the festivities are interrupted when a corpse is located in the garden by another dinner guest, decapitated with the head is nearby. The man is unrecognizable to everyone, which creates something of an impossible problem: the front door of the house was guarded by a servant, the garden is entirely enclosed and can only be accessed from within the house, therefore… how did this murder victim get into the garden without being seen by anyone? Julius K. Brayne goes on to vanish from the house under similarly impossible circumstances, conspicuously establishing his own guilt…
It’s a very atmospheric and Carrian decapitation plot, but when you boil it down to its central trick, the decapitation trick is basically the two classic decapitation tricks put together into one story, making it pretty predictable (I’d be shocked to hear that the seasoned reader was fooled by this story for even a second). However, to the story’s benefit, I’ve never seen these tricks be utilized to create an impossible problem in quite this way, so even today it still stands a pretty clever variation on the idea in principle, even if none the less obvious for it.
The killer is the subversive element of the story, though I found the religious motive to be pretty random for what role the character was supposed to be playing in this series… It’s also pretty ludicrous, based on the idea that atheists are as religious about their atheism as theists are in their faith. No real human would ever commit murder for the reason provided in this story…
Gripes aside, it really is an inspired idea for an impossible crime. The mechanics of the decapitation themselves are old hat and predictable, but to see it employed not just for identity obfuscation but to create a genuine impossible crime is a really smart idea on Chesterton’s part. Sits firmly in the “obvious but clever” category.
I wonder, actually, if this is the first appearance of this particular decapitation trick…
“The Queer Feet” has Father Brown at a hotel that is exclusive for the sake of being exclusive, taking the unknown confessions of an employee who has fallen ill… While locked into the room he’s been provided to do his writing, he’s harassed by the sounds of footsteps out in the hallway which seem “to run in order to walk” and “to walk in order to run”…
This is another of that uniquely Chestertonian problem of “the exact nature of the mystery isn’t quite clear until the end”, and the explanation really is brilliant. This is the first appearance of Chesterton’s favorite gimmick of “congruous invisibility”, and I think this one works better than other, more famous examples of this trick in the Father Brown canon. The congruity is explicitly established early in the story by the palpable social satire, and requires active effort on the culprit’s part to perform (as opposed to simply relying on an unreliable quirk of language).
If there’s a gripe to be had with this brilliantly clever story, Father Brown’s detection of the crime would’ve been more impactful had he revealed it before the crime was made known to the audience — having Father Brown solve a crime which we, the readers, didn’t even know had occurred until he explicitly explained his reasoning? Would have been something else entirely!
Still, great story with a perplexing riddle, and Father Brown’s final line is great…
“The Flying Stars” sees Father Brown as a guest at a Boxing Day dinner where the family puts on a masquerade play to entertain themselves. Only, of course, crime follows, as The Flying Stars, jewels as well as the patriarch’s gift to his daughter, are stolen from a man’s pocket during the proceedings! Father Brown immediately divines the solution.
A pretty standard theft elevated by the thief’s clever use of the improvisational play makes this a fun comedy-cum-detective story. However, though the thief’s “trap” is brilliant, it’s also perfectly unnecessary and clearly done for no better reason than the thief wanted to do some kind of flashy trick. The narrative admits that he easily could’ve stolen the gems with equal efficacy and gotten away scot free while doing half as much work, and that the thief knew this, and was simply having fun with it. So much so that the impact it had on his plan continues to elude me entirely…
Well, the idea for the trap is nonetheless brilliant, so it gets a pass. Kind of an inversion of “congruous invisibility” — making an incongruous person perfectly congruous by sheer nature of all the incongruity surrounding him. Decent story.
“The Invisible Man” is G. K. Chesterton’s most famous story. A woman rejects two “ugly” “freaks”, telling them that if they wish to marry her they must make something of their lives on principle. While the first of these “freaks” — a borderline-dwarf — succeeds in making autonomous servants, the second seems to merely be stalking the woman, promising in threatening notes to murder the dwarf if she marries him… all while appearing to be invisible! Naturally, this comes to a head as the invisible man truly does commit the murder he promised to commit… in front of four witnesses who swear that nobody walked into the victim’s house, despite the fact footprints show otherwise.
As I’ve hinted at above, I simply do not enjoy this story or consider it even remotely possible — not merely implausible, but I believe this story would never work out the way as described in real life. It utilizes Chesterton’s well-worn trick, but in this case brought to the point of absurdity so to not even be conceivable. It ultimately relies on a false premise that Chesterton tries to explain away as a quirk of language, but all I know is that the way Father Brown claims people answer questions is not the way I answer questions, that’s for certain! The solution could’ve involved the killer paying off everyone in the city to lie on his behalf, and I’d find it more believable and more enjoyable than the solution Chesterton gives us here. Hokey and overrated.
“The Honour of Israel Gow” sees Father Brown at a Scottish castle, investigating the life of a man who may or may not have lived, and the death of the very same man who may or may not have died. Brown’s newly reformed friend, former thief and current genius amateur detective, is up the wall with oddities surrounding the life and death and person of the Earl of Glengyle. He left out snuff with no snuffbox, had candles with no candlesticks… and from just this, and a conversation with the late Earl’s groundskeeper Israel Gow, Father Brown can expound on the mysteries of the house of the Earl of Glengyle.
Another of those intuitive reasoning stories with no apparent criminal element, same as “The Blue Cross” and “The Queer Feet”, “The Honour of Israel Gow”‘s solution is perfectly natural given the provided information, so long as you can find the missing link; it is, perhaps a less inspired, but more credible deduction than the one seen in “The Queer Feet”! There is a long series of false solutions at the beginning which are very pleasantly clever.
Sometimes Chesterton likes to do soft style parodies, with “The Honour of Israel Gow” clearly and evidently having fun at the expense of the stories written and inspired by Wilkie Collins. The characters in the story themselves lampshade this by calling their conundrum a melodrama straight from the mind of Collins himself. Much to be enjoyed here; these intuitive reasoning stories tend to be highlights.
The Wrong Shape” has Flambeau and Father Brown appearing at the summons of a writer of oriental romantic poems. The odd artist has a fascination with all things Asian, with his furniture being a complex hodgepodge of various Asian crafts, and the man even having an odd Indian visitor in his home. And so, when he winds up dead in his locked and sealed atrium with a note nearby reading “I die by my own hand, yet I die murdered”, it’s wondered if maybe this odd Indian visitor used hypnotism to compel the author to kill himself…
I am going to choose my words tactfully, because this topic seems to cause questionable debates in certain circles where pointing out racism in classic mysteries gets you labeled a “revisionist woke liberal”. No, I do not think this story should be censored, yes I think this story deserves to exist (as all art does), no I do not think that it should be rewritten in any way. That being said, it is still flagrantly racist. “The Indian” is referred to in exactly those terms throughout the entire story; he is not given any other name, unless you want to count “n****r” as a name. The presentation of the impossibility relies on multiple people who are otherwise rational and supposedly kind-spirited (why is Father Brown calling people “n****rs”?) to not only be incredibly racist, but so cruelly mean-spirited it overwrites all of their rational human beliefs to even for a moment believe that Indian people have access to mind-warping voodoo powers. As someone who reads these stories for enjoyment, and does not enjoy racism, I think it’s fair to say that the racism impeded my ability to derive the maximum amount of enjoyment from this story. It is free to exist as it does, but I am also free to not enjoy that it does so. On this one point, I do not care if you disagree; do not tell me.
Anyway, as concerns the investigation; I didn’t like this story when I first read it, because the mechanisms of the impossible crime are ostensibly quite crude for someone as forward thinking as Chesterton. But on closer inspection, I realized that the misdirection deflecting away from the solution was actually quite crafty, with a typically Chestertonian “congruity” clue hiding it all the while. The presentation of a paradox to mull over was a smart red herring and distraction, the sort I don’t think I’ve seen very often; I almost feel like this clue would’ve functioned even better in a visual medium, like a television show or a comic. As an impossible crime story, this is fairly well-told and quite good, but not a favorite.
In “The Sins of Prince Saradine”, Flambeau is summoned by an Italian prince for a meeting on the condition that Flambeau is only allowed to come once he is fully reformed. In this dreamy, fairyland-like islet, nothing is quite as it appears to be as Father Brown is assaulted by senses of foreboding and impending Doom…
The fourth intuitive reasoning story in the collection, this one is solid but only just. Despite being an intuitive reasoning story, the explanation relies on principles often seen before in criminal mystery stories, dulling the charm of these stories, which comes from the very fact that the explanation is so brilliantly far-removed from typical mystery fare. They’re ideas that already weren’t very new when this story was written either, making it a little more predictable and less knee-slappingly brilliant than its kin.
In fact, this repurposing of a criminal trick in an intuitive reasoning story was very much the point, as a trick utilized earlier in a criminal Father Brown story was explicitly the inspiration for the culprit in this case, a really smart clue that is established early on. Overall, this story is charmingly well-written and somewhat clever, but aside from its beautifully magical imagery unremarkable in this collection of generally much more inspired stories.
In “The Hammer of God”, after declaring his intentions to go and sleep with the wife of the local blacksmith, Norman Bohun is soon found dead under puzzling circumstances. His skull was destroyed with a massive blow, but next to him was a murder weapon: a tiny hammer… No woman could’ve delivered such a blow with such a weapon, and no man would ever consciously choose to use such a weapon, creating a seemingly inexplicable crime…
The explanations for why the paradox is a problem to begin with aren’t entirely convincing, and the solution is one of those solutions where it’s only a problem if you uncritically accept conditions laid out for you by the story without challenging them. An ounce of common sense without any extraneous mystery reading nonsense should allow any reader to easily pick out the killer and the murder method without much suspense or difficulty; neither are particularly clever. Perhaps the most well-known Father Brown this side of “The Invisible Man”, but certainly overrated.
One of the few instances in which the Father Brown culprit isn’t an atheist.
A typewriter saleswoman named Pauline falls to her death in an empty elevator shaft in “The Eye of Apollo”. However, her death is decidedly impossible. Her sister Joan, towards whom the victim Pauline was abusive, was in another office at the time of death; and Kalon, the patron of a sun-worshiping religion, was proselytizing from his balcony at the time Pauline fell. With suicide additionally off the table, Father Brown must solve the seemingly impossible circumstances of Pauline’s murder…
A phenomenally clever little story and the second best in the collection so far. While it isn’t so hard to figure out, relying on a principle people are likely familiar with, the specific application of the principle, combined with the neatly laid religious elements, make this a pretty smartly realized alibi problem. This is apparently the predecessor to Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”, but by all accounts I think this is the superior variation.
“The Sign of the Broken Sword” sees Father Brown and Flambeau haunting the tombs of famous English general St. Clair, searching for clues into his mysterious historical death. General St. Clair led a small force of his soldiers against a much larger Brazilian battalion, whereupon St. Clair was taken prisoner by Brazilian general Olivier and subsequently hung, with his broken sword dangling from his neck… However, Father Brown disagrees that this version of events is true; St. Clair was too clever to wage this suicide mission for no reason, and Olivier was too altruistic to hang a prisoner… so surely there must be a more profound spirit of evil running under this bizarre moment in English history…
I was spoiled on this short story’s connection to a certain Agatha Christie novel by one of my fellow bloggers, and I’m very sad for that because it let me clue into the true solution much sooner than I would’ve liked. This is actually a spectacular “historical cold case” story. The explanation behind St. Clair’s bizarre behavior is a brilliant way to take advantage of a wartime setting for classical misdirection in a murder mystery, and the explanation behind St. Clair’s subsequent death is genuinely creepy, both taking advantage of the large scale of war for their impact. Brilliant story, this, new second best in the collection.
“The Three Tools of Death” see Father Brown investigate a bizarre crime, in which a man died by being thrown out of the window onto the bank of a traintrack below, and yet there still seem to be three weapons responsible for his death: a rope tied around his legs; a gun fired in his bedroom; and, a knife with fresh blood on it!
The set-up doesn’t super intuitively make sense because there isn’t any ambiguity surrounding the nature or cause of his death (that being defenestration). The idea of three false weapons being present at the crime scene is one John Dickson Carr would revisit in his own The Four False Weapons, and it’s a worthwhile prospect but it isn’t a premise G. K. Chesterton established very well, and this bizarre half-set-up does dull the story’s impact. The anti-solution has all of Father Brown’s characteristic cleverness, but part of me wonders if maybe this story was written on a tight deadline with its rather short length (~30% shorter than the average Father Brown story) and messy set-up.
The Innocence of Father Brown might not be the beacon of perfection it’s often heralded as, but what can be said about it is that it’s a fascination and illuminating look into what the genre would become. The clever, imaginative, tricky plots of the Golden Age essentially owe their existence to G. K. Chesterton and Father Brown, a purifying force that elevated detective stories from their crude and rational forms into something a little more artistic and crafty. Quite a few classics of the genre make their appearance here, and while I don’t think I’ve walked away thinking of Chesterton himself as a favorite author, I can say that some highlights like “The Queer Feet” will stick with me as some some of my favorite individual mystery short stories of all time!
I will absolutely return to this formative author’s mystery stories in the near future, as it is interesting to see the DNA of so many beloved novels and stories first form in these pages… As it is, The Innocence of Father Brown is a solid collection from one of the most important detective fiction authors of all time!
As is standard, I’ll wrap this all up with a ranking of the Father Brown stories…
- “The Queer Feet”
- “The Sign of the Broken Sword”
- “The Eye of Apollo”
- “The Secret Garden”
- “The Honour of Israel Gow”
- The Wrong Shape”
- “The Three Tools of Death”
- “The Blue Cross”
- “The Flying Stars”
- “The Sins of Prince Saradine”
- “The Hammer of God”
- “The Invisible Man”