G. K. Chesterton Essay - Critical Essays

G. K. Chesterton Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

G. K. Chesterton began writing detective fiction in 1905 with a collection of short stories titled The Club of Queer Trades. Between 1905 and the appearance of the first collection of Father Brown stories in 1911, Chesterton also published a detective novel, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, in 1908. There followed, in addition to the Father Brown series, one more detective novel and several additional detective short-story collections. It was the Father Brown stories, however, that became the most popular—though some critics believe them the least important—of Chesterton’s works.

Students of Chesterton as an author of detective fiction make several general observations. They note that, like many who took up that genre, Chesterton was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. It is often said that the plots of many of the Father Brown stories are variations on the plot of Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” in which an essential clue escapes the observer’s attention because it fits with its surroundings.

Chesterton was influenced also by Charles Dickens, whom he admired greatly, and about whom he wrote a biography (considered one of his most valuable works of literary criticism). Chesterton learned from Dickens the art of creating an atmosphere and of giving his characters a depth that makes them memorable. In this area Chesterton’s achievement rivals that of Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown have outlived their rivals, in part because readers come to know them and their world too well to forget them.

Students of Chesterton agree, however, that there is one area in particular that distinguishes Chesterton’s detective fiction from that of Doyle—and that of virtually all other mystery writers before him. This distinctive element accounts for critics’ observation that Chesterton lifted the detective story beyond the level of light fiction into the realm of serious literature. Chesterton’s hallmark is an ever-present concern with spiritual and moral issues: locating and exploring the guilt that underlies and is responsible for criminal activity. Some critics trace this emphasis on a universe with moral absolutes to Dickens’s influence. The fact that it is a common theme throughout all Chesterton’s writings, both fiction and nonfiction, however, suggests that, although written to entertain, his detective stories were a means of popularizing ideas he argued on a different level in his more serious, nonfictional works.

Father Brown Series

It is easy to see how Chesterton’s orthodox Roman Catholic worldview permeates the Father Brown stories. It is evident in his understanding of the nature of criminal activity, as well as in the methodology by which Father Brown solves a mystery, and in his primary purpose for becoming involved in detection.

When the two Father Brown collections published before World War I are compared with those published after the war, a change in emphasis is revealed. In The Innocence of Father Brown (1911) and The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914), the emphasis is on Father Brown’s use of reason informed by faith, along with certain psychological insights gained from his profession, to solve a particular crime. In The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), The Secret of Father Brown (1927), and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935), the emphasis is on using reason not only to identify the criminal but also to obtain a confession—and with it, the salvation of the criminal’s soul.

Chesterton found the inspiration for Father Brown in 1904, when he first met Father John O’Connor, the Roman Catholic parish priest of St. Cuthbert’s, Bradford, England. Writer and priest became lifelong friends; it was Father O’Connor who received Chesterton into the Roman Catholic Church on July 30, 1922, and who sang the Requiem Mass for him on June 27, 1936. O’Connor even served as the model for the illustration of Father Brown on the dust jacket of The Innocence of Father Brown.

Chesterton was impressed with O’Connor’s knowledge of human nature warped by sin. O’Connor had a deep insight into the nature of evil, obtained through the many hours he had spent in the confessional. Chesterton observed that many people consider priests to be somehow divorced from the “real world” and its evil; O’Connor’s experience, however, gave evidence that such was not the case. Thus, Chesterton became interested in creating a fictional priest-sleuth, one who outwardly appeared innocent, even naïve, but whose profound understanding of the psychology of evil would give him a definite edge over the criminal—and over the average detective. Much of the reader’s pleasure in the Father Brown stories lies in the ever-present contrast between the...

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