G. K. Chesterton Short Fiction Analysis
Before he began writing his Father Brown stories, G. K. Chesterton had already published one book of detective fiction. In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton created a detective named Gabriel Syme, who infiltrates an anarchist group in which each of the seven members is named for a different day of the week. Syme replaces the man who had been Thursday. At first, this group seems strange to Syme because he does not understand what the anarchists wish to accomplish. This paradox is resolved when Chesterton explains that all seven “anarchists” were, in fact, detectives assigned separately to investigate this nonexistent threat to society. Although The Man Who Was Thursday does demonstrate Chesterton’s ability to think clearly in order to resolve a problem, the solution to this paradox is so preposterous that many readers have wondered why Chesterton wrote this book, whose ending is so odd. It is hardly credible that all seven members of a secret organization could be police officers. Critics have not been sure how they should interpret this work. Chesterton’s own brother, Cecil, thought that it expressed an excessively optimistic view of the world, but other reviewers criticized The Man Who Was Thursday for its pessimism. This book lacked a central focus.
In his Father Brown stories, this problem of perspective does not exist because it is the levelheaded Father Brown who always explains the true significance of scenes and events that had mystified readers and other characters as well. The other characters, be they detectives, criminals, suspects, or acquaintances of the victim, always come to the conclusion that Father Brown has correctly solved the case.
“The Secret of Father Brown”
In his 1927 short story “The Secret of Father Brown,” Chesterton describes the two basic premises of his detective. First, Father Brown is very suspicious of any suspect who utilizes specious reasoning or expresses insincere religious beliefs. Father Brown senses intuitively that a character who reasons incorrectly might well be a criminal. Second, Father Brown strives to “get inside” the mind of “the murderer” so completely that he is “thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions.” Father Brown needs to understand what drives the guilty party to commit a specific crime before he can determine who the criminal is and how the crime was committed.
Most critics believe that the best Father Brown stories are those that were published in Chesterton’s 1911 volume The Innocence of Father Brown. Although his later Father Brown stories should not be neglected, his very early stories are ingenious and have remained popular with generations of readers. Several stories in The Innocence of Father Brown illustrate nicely how Father Brown intuitively and correctly solves crimes.
“The Blue Cross”
In “The Blue Cross,” Aristide Valentin (the head of the Paris police) is sent to London to arrest a notorious thief named Flambeau, who is a master of disguises. Valentin knows that Flambeau is well over six feet tall, but he does not know how Flambeau is dressed. As Valentin is walking through London, his attraction is suddenly drawn to two Catholic priests. One is short and the other is tall. The short priest acts strangely so that he would attract attention. He deliberately throws soup on a wall in a restaurant, upsets the apples outside of a grocery store, and breaks a window in another restaurant. This odd behavior disturbs the merchants, who consequently, ask police officers to follow the priests, who are walking toward the Hampstead Heath. Readers soon learn that the short priest wants to be followed for his own protection. Just as the tall priest, who is, in fact, Flambeau, orders Father Brown, the short priest, to turn over a sapphire cross that he was carrying to a church in Hampstead, Father Brown tells him that “two strong policemen” and Valentin are waiting behind a tree in order to arrest Flambeau. The astonished Flambeau asks Father Brown how he knew that he was not a real priest. Readers learn that Father Brown’s suspicion began when, earlier in the story, the tall priest affirmed that only “modern infidels appeal to reason,” whereas true Catholics have no use for it. Father Brown tells Flambeau: “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.” His intuition told him that his tall companion could not have been a priest, and he was right.
Father Brown is not merely an amateur detective. He is above all a priest whose primary responsibility is to serve as a spiritual guide to upright people and sinners alike. Although he brought about Flambeau’s arrest, Flambeau soon turned away from a life of crime. After his release from prison, he became a private detective, and his closest...
(The entire section is 1977 words.)