The Man Who Knew Too Much (G.K. Chesterton)

Chesterton - Man Who Knew Too Much

By G.K. Chesterton

First published: UK, Cassell, 1922; USA, Harper & Brothers, 1924

The man who knew too much is Horne Fisher, a diplomat related to all the politicians and aristocracy of England, and, knowing the vice and corruption that governs England from the inside, knows too much to know anything, or, at any rate, to do anything.

As one may guess, this is Chesterton’s darkest and most cynical work, a far cry from the innocence and wisdom of Father Brown. Crimes are covered up for the good of the Party, the guilty (including the Prime Minister) go free, Fisher is twice betrayed by his relatives, and politics are, on the whole, a very wicked business indeed. SPOILER (highlight to read) At the end of the cycle, however, Fisher sacrifices himself to save England from an army of invading Asiatics – also, perhaps, as an atonement for his own crime of knowing too much.

The stories themselves are very fine (with the exception of “The Soul of the Schoolboy”, which, with its theft of a precious object with religious overtones, mystic and irreligious mania, is a first draft of The Red Moon of Meru).

“The Face in the Target” is a fairy tale about murder by shooting at a country house weekend with a murderer whose identity is very nearly “the Painful Fall of a Great Reputation”.

“The Vanishing Prince” is an Irish revolutionary who apparently vanishes from a guarded tower after killing two policemen – a situation worthy of Carr, although the trick is fairly obvious.

“The Bottomless Well” is a very clever story involving the guilt of a hero (c.f. The Sign of the Broken Sword), a method Christie would use in Curtain, and an Arab legend.

“The Hole in the Wall” is probably the best of the eight. Lord Bulmer vanishes from his Christmas fancy-dress party – but where is his body? The method used is at once ingeniously horrible and a brilliant alibi.

“The Fad of the Fisherman” sets up a good situation (murder of a blackmailing magnate surrounded by celebrity victims – rather like Ask a Policeman) but the solution, although surprising, is given too quickly and is rather short on clues.

The last two are both very dark. Fisher, standing as the candidate of the yeoman party (whose policies are really Distributionist), turns out to be “The Fool of the Family”; while “The Vengeance of the Statue” turns Britain into a battlefield – rather like the Great War.

The last four stories do not feature Fisher. “The Trees of Pride” is a picturesque tale of Cornish legends about man-eating trees and a vanishing squire; the solution anticipates The Resurrection of Father Brown.

“The Garden of Smoke” is rather intensely written, almost as if Poe or Baudelaire’s ghosts had been summoned by the opium-smoking poetess, but the horrible method is one of Chesterton’s very best.

“The Five of Swords”, set in France, is one of Chesterton’s stories about a crooked duel (c.f. The Man Who Was Thursday, “The Sins of Prince Saradine” and The Chief Mourner of Marne), while “The Tower of Treason” is, like The Fairy Tale of Father Brown, a fantasy about Ruritanian politics.

Probably the best non-Father Brown collection, although perhaps too sour to be really enjoyable.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (E.E. Mavrogordato, 9th November 1922):

“You are pretty paradoxical to-day,” is the comment made by one of Mr. G.K. Chesterton’s characters at the end of the collection of detective stories entitled The Man Who Knew Too Much: and it may stand as a summary of the book itself.  The paradoxes are to be found in so many mouths that they may be ascribed without unfairness to the author who put them there; and this personal intervention of his deflects the attention to moral issues and distracts it from the serious business of detection.  A humanitarian, he will say, “would have three men butchered with the axe of the guillotine because one has fallen by the sword”; and the reader compelled to take up the cudgels for humanitarians—of all unattractive people!—allows the cosmopolitan financier to escape him.  Many, however, will leave Mr. Chesterton’s corpses lying about in wells and elsewhere and be well content to follow these false trails.  There is always just enough truth in the paradox to remove it from the category of funniments, but no so much that it ceases to be provocative—“There’s method in his madness; there nearly always is method in madness; it’s what drives men mad, being methodical.”  “I admired your great goodness so much that I had to attack it”—is another instance.  There is in Mr. Chesterton an undergraduate who prides himself on saying the opposite of what other people say; but at times he will say what other people would be only too glad to say if they had his skill with words—“Patriotism rots into Prussianism when you pretend it is the first virtue”; “In her face there was a true intensity; her keen eyes were full of distances, that is, of desires, but of desires too large to be sensuous.”

The corpses have been left to grow cold, but a trifle of that kind will not baffle Mr. Chesterton’s sleuth.  His sleuth talks about clues—and most plausibly, but he does not need them; for it is not in Mr. Chesterton to deify Reason.  “The man who knows too much” detects by intuition: it is not so difficult as it might appear, for if he knows his Mr. Chesterton he knows that certain people—Celts, for instance, and mystics and people who do not make a parade of sobriety—will certainly not go hang.  Indeed, nobody does go hang; it is the merit or defect according to taste of these stories that the slayer is judged by a higher tribunal than sits in the Law Courts and may well be a more estimable person than the man slain: in one flight of fancy Mr. Chesterton conceives a Prime Minister who murders a financier to save the country!  There is small place then for that fine body of police; and almost the only policeman who secures entrance to these select pages owes it to looking like a Russian artist.  The killings are always committed for unusual motives and in a peculiar setting; and the crime which gave Mr. Chesterton most pleasure to dilate on is one in which he could keep all the company for some days in fancy dress and prove by mine and counter-mine first that “Prior’s Place” was not connected with a priory and then, triumphantly, that it was.  It is clear, however, from the following passage that Mr. Chesterton could write the orthodox detective story as well as most:—

 It was he who had anticipated the suicide of a cosmopolitan millionaire judging from the fact that he did not wind up his watch.  It was he, also, who had frustrated a great German conspiracy in America, detecting the Teutonic spy by his unembarrassed posture in a chair when a Boston lady was handing him tea.


New Statesman (2nd December 1922, 20w):

Plenty of wit; even more poetry than tales of mystery require: extravagantly ingenious stories.


NY Times (L.M. Field, 10th December 1922, 820w):

In adopting the formula for the tales that the criminal shall never pay the penalty for his crime Mr. Chesterton has given himself a somewhat heavy handicap.  It is not the easiest of tasks to invent a murder mystery which shall be ingenious, plausible, perplexing and also possess some credible reason why the wrong-doer shall be permitted to escape…  But Mr. Chesterton is always clever; he has the gift of being almost invariably entertaining, and very uneven in merit as these stories are, nevertheless they all have in them something that is worth while, and the best are very good indeed.


NY Tribune (F.F. Van de Water, 10th December 1922, 500w):

They are fine, gripping stories.  Mr. Chesterton seems to lift detective literature out of the Sunday supplement slough into which it has dropped of late, and to elevate it again to the heights of Poe and the other founders…  Mr. Chesterton’s book is, like all his work, cluttered up with paradoxes and contradictions.  They serve a real purpose by keeping you from following the exciting trail of his story so rapidly that you skip.


Lit R (A.D. Douglas, 23rd December 1922, 950w):

You can, of course, count on Mr. Chesterton’s narrative style.  As of old it glows with the divine fire and glitters as of old with the tinsel sheath of paradox.  Yet even here scepticism intrudes and lays her heavy head in mortuary slumber.  The World War has been too much with Mr. Chesterton.  Like the rest of us, he is tired.


New Statesman (30th December 1922, 1300w):

Mr. Chesterton has written an absorbing book this time.  It is solid, too, though its full weight is lifted so easily by his ballooning fancy, that it may not be felt at first.