Chesterton’s paradoxes; colorful and coruscating style; baroque plots with their family curses and sinister fanatics, worst crimes in the world, and strange sins; and Father Brown, the little priest who explains the riddles of the universe, make him supreme among detective writers.
Chesterton – jolly journalist, Catholic polemicist, and philosopher – was, as Mike Grost argues, the great ancestor of the “puzzle plot” school of detective writers who told imaginative stories, and emphasized misdirection and fair play, mystery, and the surprise solution.
Chesterton’s stories work as brilliant mysteries, in which the little Catholic priest Father Brown solves a bizarre crime; as dark fairy-tales, with a sinister atmosphere of magic, wonder, and terror; and as parables that make a philosophical or social comment.
The true object of an intelligent detective story is not to baffle the reader, but to enlighten the reader; but to enlighten him in such a manner that each successive portion of the truth comes as a surprise. In this, as in much nobler types of mystery, the object of the true mystic is not merely to mystify, but to illuminate. The object is not darkness, but light; but light in the form of lightning.
(“Errors About Detective Stories”, 1920)
The climax must not be only the bursting of a bubble but rather the breaking of a dawn; only that the daybreak is accentuated by the dark. Any form of art, however trivial, refers back to some serious truths; and though we are dealing with nothing more momentous than a mob of Watsons, all watching with round eyes like owls, it is still permissible to insist that it is the people who sat in darkness who have seen a great light; and that the darkness is only valuable in making vivid a great light in the mind.
(“How to Write a Detective Story”, 1925)
Chesterton was both a Romantic, and a comic writer, in the grand tradition of Dickens. He is witty and eminently quotable; at his best, every line sings. His prose explodes like fireworks, dazzling and delightful, shooting across the page in a blaze of puns and paradoxes, leaving a trail of singing stars in its wake.
His stories are about an intrusion of magic into everyday life. Several stories – the fantastic pursuits in “The Blue Cross” and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908); the Stevensonian Club of Queer Trades (1905); and the pageantry of the science-fiction novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) – transform London into a fantasy land.
In his detective stories, invisible men commit murders, mystics call to flying fish, professors vanish into thin air, people fight improbable duels – and things, paradoxically, really are what they appear to be. Even though the fantastical circumstances of the crime are rationally explained, he still teaches his readers to look at life afresh.
“There is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life,” he writes in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), “and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”
The solution often involves turning the case upside down. One detective, the poet Gabriel Gale, even stands on his head to look at things the right way up. Notable examples include “The Flying Stars”, SPOILER (select to read) in which a Christmas harlequinade is a trap for a policeman, and “The Sign of the Broken Sword”, in which a general starts a battle to hide his private murder.
His stories are literate and literary. Some suggest E.T.A. Hoffmann or the early Romantics, with their semi-ruined castles, monastic recluses and hermits, and Central European and Balkan settings.
Others, with their atmosphere of psychological and moral wrongness, and crime that is darker than the mystery, recall the Decadence of the fin-de-siècle. Phantasmagorical beauty and horror suggest Aubrey Beardsley, while the epigrams are Wildean. On the other hand, the love of paradoxes, and the sturdiness and common sense of his wit recall that other great Gilbert, W.S.
He had an Impressionist eye for color and light, evident in the vivid descriptions of sun-sets and landscapes, or the brightly colored shop-window displays in “The Invisible Man” and “The Purple Jewel”.
The wisdom of Father Brown
Father Brown sees the culprit not as a criminal type, but as an individual who has committed a sin, and a soul to be saved. “The Secret of Father Brown” is that he can understand the murderer from within.
“I don’t try to get outside the man. I try to get inside the murderer… Indeed it’s much more than that, don’t you see? I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer.”
By understanding who the criminal is, what he has done, and why, Father Brown can bring him to repentance. In the process, Father Brown understands himself. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.
Father Brown solves mysteries by understanding the meaning of a situation or a character’s behavior or conversation. Because he emphasized psychological and atmospheric clues, some contemporary critics – H. Douglas Thomson (Masters of Mystery, 1931), E.M. Wrong (“Crime and Detection”, 1926), and Howard Haycraft (Murder for Pleasure, 1941) – thought Chesterton and the writers he influenced, like H.C. Bailey, were “unfair” or “intuitive”, particularly when compared to R. Austin Freeman’s scientific school.
In fact, the clueing is subtler, more artistic. True, there are physical clues: mirrors and reflections in “The Man in the Passage” and “The Mirror of the Magistrate”; the ominous significance of a light under a door in “The Dagger with Wings”; and “The Oracle of the Dog”, which howls SPOILER not because its master has died, but because a stick thrown into the sea has sunk, rather than floated.
Chesterton weaves the clues into the narrative fabric, and fuses traditional physical evidence with psychological clueing, with more emphasis on the latter. He tantalizes the reader with what they could mean, but waits until the very end before explaining the criminal’s identity and the significance of the evidence. He tries, as Douglas G. Greene (John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, 1995) argues, to deceive and mislead the reader while still remaining true to the principle of fair play and sharing all the clues. Later writers such as S.S. Van Dine, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr would develop this new approach to detection into the formal puzzle plot.
Conversely, Chesterton rejected Freeman’s scientific method, which he thought excluded the human element. He parodies the scientific / technological approach to detection in “The Absence of Mr. Glass”, where a scientific detective builds an elaborate theory but overlooks the fact that a man is laughing, and “The Mistake of the Machine”, which satirizes lie detectors. Where Dr. Thorndyke analyzed dust through a microscope, the dominant clue for Chesterton was human nature, what people said and thought and felt and believed.
The detective story of ideas
Chesterton believed that the detective story was a modern fable or fairy story, “the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life” (“A Defence of Detective Stories”, 1901). (This view recurs in later writers like Gladys Mitchell and Nicholas Blake.)
“The essence of a mystery tale is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected, and yet can see to be true.”
(“The Ideal Detective Story”, 1930)
Truth on two levels – the ingenious solution to the mystery, but also a truth about human nature, society, or religion. For the first time in its history, the detective story became a genre for conveying ideas.
Chesterton triumphantly proves wrong Haycraft’s assertion that the detective story cannot “become a novel of ideas”. Chesterton’s stories burst with ideas. Many of his stories – like those of his friend and sparring partner, George Bernard Shaw – are intellectual comedies in which debate is presented as drama, and wit and satire used to make telling points. The villains, as Thomas E. Porter (“Gilbert Keith Chesterton”, in Earl F. Bargainnier, Twelve Englishmen of Mystery, 1984), are “ideologues; that is, they subscribe to an idea or a system of ideas that controls their interpretation of experience and dictates their reactions to it”. The crimes are frequently wrong thinking rather than wrong doing (theft, murder), or the crimes are the result of intellectual error.
Chesterton’s murderers often kill out of misguided idealism (“When Doctors Agree”), or are driven mad by their philosophy (the atheist police chief in “The Secret Garden”, the materialist doctor in “The Wrong Shape”, the High Churchman in “The Hammer of God”, the pagan priest in “The Eye of Apollo”, the optimist in “The Three Tools of Death”). In “The Finger of Stone”, SPOILER the sculptor Paradou murders his philosophical mentor Boyg to stop him from admitting that he was wrong, petrifies the body in a local river, and displays it as a statue.
Chesterton himself, though, was misled by his own ideas. Father Brown stresses the importance of rational thinking, which, as Porter suggests, is reason founded on human nature and specifics, following the example of Chesterton’s hero Thomas Aquinas, rather than taxonomy or the abstract. In his first case, “The Blue Cross”, he knows that another priest is really the master thief Flambeau because
“You attacked reason… It is bad theology.”
However, Chesterton himself can be irrational because he sees reason and theology as intertwined:
“Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God Himself is bound by reason.”
Freethinkers and agnostics are irrational. “The first effect of not believing in God [is] that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are,” Father Brown says in “The Oracle of the Dog”. Such people, according to Chesterton, lose their sense of proportion and moral sense, will believe in anything provided it is extraordinary enough (like evolution), and end up losing their faith not only in God but also in man and life itself.
Too many of the later works deteriorate into Catholic apologetics, while his theological works such as Orthodoxy (1908) and The Everlasting Man (1925) are unconvincing, often arguing from false premises. In such tales as “The Crime of the Communist” or “The Point of a Pin”, the mystery becomes a framework on which to hang the debate, and theme becomes more important than story or plot.
This, though, is a weakness of genius.