The Incredulity of Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton)

By G.K. Chesterton

First published: UK, Cassell, 1926; USA, Dodd, Mead, 1926


Chesterton - Incredulity of Father Brown.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

To the vast array of mystery-lovers, Father Brown is an old friend; he unravels the tangled skein of crime with entire success, and does it with convincing common-sense logic.  His hold on the hearts of his wide public is due to his giving the impression that he is of “common clay” as the rest of us, but with a “difference”.  And it is because that most provoking fellow G.K. Chesterton has given to the simple, lovable character of Father Brown this “difference”, that readers call and call again for more of Father Brown’s gentle demonstrations of how simple is the tracing of crime – once you know how.  Earlier adventures of Father Brown demonstrate his “Innocence” and his “Wisdom”.  In Father Brown’s latest achievements (eight in number) his “Incredulity” is demonstrated.  Every page provides capital reading full of brisk life and characteristic “G. K. C.” epigram.  The mystery-loving public will rejoice at this resurrection of a favourite character.

My review

One of the best collections — and also the bloodiest. Out of eight short stories, seven involve murder (three of them more than one murder),. The unifying theme of the collection is that Chesterton’s Catholicism is very much a rational, intellectual religion; as Father Brown says, “the first effect of not believing in God is that you lose your common sense”.

Father Brown believes in very little in this collection.  He does not believe in his own murder, he does not believe in the impossible flight of an arrow, he does not believe that a dog can prophesy his master’s death and identify a murderer, and he does not believe in four stories told to him by various murderers.

Faked legends, murdered American millionaires, dubious mystics, artists, poets and storytellers as villains, abound — and it is much to Chesterton’s credit that he makes each character and story different in tone, setting and plot, even when using the same ingredients.

The Resurrection of Father Brown

One of the most interesting stories, which features no legal crime, but rather attempts to destroy Christianity. Father Brown, acting as parish priest in a South America beset by “one of those fevers of atheist and almost anarchist Radicalism which periodically break out in countries of the Latin culture”, becomes a major tourist attraction. Although originally very funny, this soon develops into darkness, with Father Brown murdered at the very pinnacle of his fame. At his funeral, he rises from the dead, causing a public sensation among the inhabitants of the town. Yet, ironically, it is Father Brown himself who does not believe in his resurrection, stating that “miracles are not so cheap as all that”. The story bears similarities to The Duel of Dr. Hirsch and The Final Problem, at which Chesterton pokes fun, even using it as a clue.


The Arrow of Heaven

A straightforward murder puzzle: the millionaire Brandon Merton, owner of the cursed Coptic Cup, is found dead in a locked room, shot from outside by an arrow which could not have been shot from outside. In the style of John Dickson Carr, the little priest offers various false solutions, before propounding one that reverses The Wrong Shape, and was reused in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (1935).


The Oracle of the Dog

A classic tale, brilliant in its simplicity and straightforwardness. Colonel Druce is stabbed to death in a watched summerhouse with a dagger that cannot be found; at the same time, the dog howled while fetching sticks in play, and barked furiously at the Colonel’s lawyer. While some believe the dog foretold the murder and recognised the murderer, Father Brown, acting as an armchair detective, does not believe in the so-called oracle, but sees it as a clue. He gives one of his best sermons, arguing that “the dog had everything to do with it, as you’d have found out if you’d only treated the dog as a dog, and not as God Almighty judging the souls of men”. The other clues are superb, an intricately woven network of psychological and physical facts; the murderer’s identity, revealed halfway through, is logical and inevitable; and the method, not disclosed until the end, is more than brilliant.


The Miracle of Moon Crescent

One of the Father Brown tales set in America, which is used in quite a surreal way. The characters and setting are straightforward, but the events are bizarre. Philanthropist Warren Wynd vanishes from a guarded and inaccessible room, and is found hanged in a tree. The motive is an interesting moral problem, and the solution is vintage Chesterton.


The Curse of the Golden Cross

Similar to “The Dagger with Wings” with its monomaniac desire to possess a relic, here a cross inscribed with a symbol from the arcana of the very earliest church; a second one is found in Sussex. Murder is, of course, committed, and Father Brown provides an ingenious solution relying on impersonation. The emphasis on archaeology anticipates both HC Bailey and Gladys Mitchell, while the menace from the past is handled in such a fashion as to recall M.R. James at his best.


The Dagger with Wings

One of the top five Father Brown stories, explaining why “Father Brown, at one period of his life, found it difficult to hang his hat on a hat-peg without repressing a slight shudder”. The priest is asked by a friend to visit Arnold Aylmer, the third and last of three brothers, two of whom have already been murdered by their father’s adopted son, John Strake, to diagnose whether Aylmer is mad or not, since Aylmer believes Strake is both a murderer and a vampire. Everything about the story is perfect: although the story consists of little more than a conversation between Father Brown and Aylmer and one other event (which is why it would make a superb play), the atmosphere is remarkably tense, showing why Chesterton was such a fine story-teller. While the story is simple, the staggering solution shows Chesterton’s inventiveness at its best, pulling rabbits out of a hat like a master magician, and devising brilliant illusions and equally brilliant clues with light and colour.


The Doom of the Darnaways

This classic contains Chesterton’s parody on the Victorian melodrama. The accursed Darnaways, who are haunted by superstition, live in an old house sinking slowly into a swamp. They all fear that the new heir, returned from Australia, will murder his loved one, and commit suicide, but are bound by tradition. Father Brown stands for common sense and the Catholic belief in free will as opposed to predestination, arguing that “a man isn’t fated to fall into the smallest venial sin, let alone into crimes like suicide and murder”. Darnway does die, an apparent suicide, as the Doom foretold, but Father Brown, treating the Doom as clue rather than curse, is able to bring about a happy ending and apprehend a fine surprise villain.


The Ghost of Gideon Wise

Good, rather than excellent, and somewhat over-rated. Father Brown is in America (although there is less sense of America than in “The Arrow of Heaven” or “The Miracle of Moon Crescent”), and defends three Bolshevists, one of them an imminent convert, from charges of murdering three millionaires (à la “Arrow of Heaven”, which also featured three millionaires and an identical plot twist). These ingredients enable Chesterton to denounce both Bolshevism and Capitalism (indeed, against everything except Distributism!). The alibi is clever, but lacks the brilliance of Chesterton’s best tales.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (1st July 1926):

Father Brown is as nearly as possible made the victim of a cleverly arranged sham miracle which was to have been exposed subsequently and used to discredit him by some of the ingenious people who throng Mr. Chesterton’s pages—men eager to believe anything, no matter how odd or unlikely, provided that it be not the Church which invites their credulity.  It is indeed with credulous unbelievers that Mr. Chesterton makes pleasing sport—he produces fantastic curses and uncanny dooms, and his superstitious characters hasten to accept them as Gospel, never stopping to inquire whether, perhaps, they may not be of the nature of those famous prophecies which are only made public after they have been fulfilled.  Amid these folk and their terrifying fancies Father Brown moves in his atmosphere of sober sanity.  Confronted with corpses which have become such in circumstances which lead ordinary folk to suggest the most erudite explanations in conformity with the dictates of science or superstition, Father Brown applies the touchstone of common sense.  He unmasks criminals, exposes impostures, and in general provides a whole volume of delightfully unusual and entertaining adventures, which show that he has by no means lost either his attractive simplicity or his cunning in being poisoned and mourned for dead in America, in which continent he has been entrusted with a cure of souls by Mr. Chesterton.


Sat R (L.P. Hartley, 3rd July 1926, 90w):

The Incredulity of Father Brown provides a rich entertainment.  One likes the stories none the worse for the circumstance that in each the solution is not only a feather in the cap of the good father; it also redounds to the credit of the Roman Catholic Church.


Lit R (E.C. Beckwith, 17th July 1926, 350w):

This volume seems to us weaker and more conspicuously shallow than its forerunners.  An echoing monotony pervades the present collection of eight tales, a suggestion of sameness attributable to their exclusive concern with the obscurely fabulous, the pseudo-supernatural and the utterly improbable.


Spectator (17th July 1926, 380w):

Mr. Chesterton’s new stories are full of interest.  There is nothing really gruesome about them; but Mr. Chesterton always writes with an ingenuity and a fine cheerfulness which warm the heart.  But there is one reproof we would give to Father Brown.  It seems too frequently to be his method, when he is warned that evil business is in hand, to wait till the murder is accomplished before he gets to work; a method which is a trifle unkind.


NY Times (18th July 1926, 950w):

Fortunately for those who enjoyed The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown, G.K.C. has now compiled another series of tales on this entertaining and energetic ecclesiastic.


Sat R of Lit (24th July 1926, 600w):

These tales are highly-coloured, dramatic, and in all of them the characters approach fantastic beings, as do the characters in all of Chesterton’s fiction.  But that does not make them less entertaining.


Springfield Republican (2nd August 1926, 560w):

Compared with the two preceding volumes The Incredulity of Father Brown is more even in workmanship and certainly it is more fantastic in most of its plots; but one turns back to The Innocence of Father Brown in preference nevertheless, partly because in it Father Brown made his first and most spectacular appearance.


Ind (28th August 1926, 150w);

At times Father Brown is not only brilliant in his hard common sense, but is also convincing.  As a rule, however, the stories are more ingenious than real, and the author drives [sic] too gladly into the tempting waves of fine writing and lush, journalistic effects.


Bookm (J.F., September 1926, 250w):

If I’ve ever read a better short mystery than ‘The Doom of the Darnaways’ or ‘The Curse of the Golden Cross’, I have forgotten it.  Perhaps it was a ‘Father Brown’ story of older vintage.  Anyway, Chesterton, when he turns to these yarns, is always magnificent.


Living Age (18th September 1926, 600w; reprinted from Westminster Gazette):

The crimes that he dealt with in the Innocence and the Wisdom contrived to convey a little conviction.  The crimes with which he deals in the latest collection of adventures are fundamentally unreal or unwholesome.  In fine, none of these crime stories is of any real interest to the reader because they are of no real interest to Mr. Chesterton.