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

  1. By G.K. Chesterton

First published: UK, Cassell, 1927; USA, Harper & Brothers, 1929


Blurb (UK)

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In this collection of stories Father Brown explains his strange yet simple methods of solving mysteries of crime which have baffled the astutest police detectives.  The little priest is at his best in this book, and the stories told are the most thrilling of his many remarkable experiences.

 

Blurb (US)

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Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Father Brown is the one detective in English fiction, besides Sherlock Holmes, whose entertaining personality is so human and unique that he has achieved a living individuality.  This new series of adventures and mysteries solved by his skill and quick wits makes as puzzling and thrilling a book as has appeared since his previous exploits in The Man Who Knew Too Much [sic].  These new stories often have a delightful humorous twist; but adventures of a very different sort are also included – among them “The Chief Mourner of Marne”, a sinister and unforgettable storyh which caused much comment in Harper’s Magazine.  Other exciting stories in this volume are “The Song of the Flying Fish”, “The Worst Crime in the World”, “The Actor and the Alibi”, and “The Red Moon of Meru”.


My review

“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.

The Mirror of the Magistrate

One of Chesterton’s greatest stories, this is the story of the murder of the judge in his garden after returning from a legal dinner. Although the energetic police detective James Bagshaw arrests the poet Osric Orm, Father Brown, who understands both the psychology of poets and the significance of the broken looking-glass (maestro!), unmasks the surprise villain, whose identity, as it should be, is both logical and utterly unexpected.

 

The Man with Two Beards

The motive for murder in this tale of robberies in Chisham is “possibly unique in human history” and quite ingenious, but the reader may wonder why the murderer did not merely use gloves rather than resorting to such blackly comic excesses .

 

 The Song of the Flying Fish

An enjoyable but forgettable story about the theft of goldfish by a Chestertonian mystic.

 

The Actor and the Alibi

A story which ought to be better-known, for this tale of a theatre manager stabbed in his locked office while all the suspects are on stage together has a very clever alibi relying on The School for Scandal.

 

The Vanishing of Vaudrey

One of Chesterton’s most memorable and startling stories, the principal situation is the vanishing of Sir Arthur Vaudrey, whose body is found floating in the river: “the most horrible thing I ever saw in my life,” remarks Father Brown, who, like Gabriel Gale, recognises the importance of seeing things upside down, and the curious significance of the tobacconist, before bringing to light a truly horrible revenge.

 

The Worst Crime in the World

Captain James Musgrave, son and heir of Sir John Musgrave, lord of a Northumbrian castle, has committed the worst crime in the world, “something so horrible that he has ceased to be — I will not say a gentleman — but even a human being”. The plot is breath-taking in its audacious simplicity and ingenuity.

 

The Red Moon of Meru

A slight tale, in which a jewel is stolen at a fête, apparently by an Indian mystic, whom Father Brown denounces for his mysticism.

 

The Chief Mourner of Marne

A short story that vies with The Sign of the Broken Sword for the position of Chesterton’s masterpiece. Father Brown, faced with the prospect of an anti-clerical newspaper campaign, is forced to investigate the true story of the last duel fought in Britain (on the west coast of Scotland) thirty years before. The solution is genuinely horrible, and there is a very palpable sense of evil and tragedy about the tale.


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (29th September 1927):

It is a great art, and one very useful to statesmen, administrators, and all others who have to take account of public opinion and other people’s feelings, to be able to get inside somebody else’s skin and see the working of his mind.  Father Brown in the present volume confesses that he makes use of this power as a means of finding out how and why the various wrongdoers who come thus publicly under his observation have perpetrated, or have not perpetrated, the misdeeds in question.  He is, however, inconvenienced in this volume in putting his system into practice by the fact that when introducing himself into the personality of suspected criminals he finds that a third party is already installed there.  Indeed, in dealing with peccant aristocrats Father Brown must by now be quite well-accustomed to the discovery that they often turn out to be really somebody else.  In dealing with a miscreant in a less exalted social sphere the introduction of a pantomime trap into a costume comedy enables the observant priest, who, as the reader will notice, is in turns both round and square in his carefully undistinguished appearance, to solve a mystery and clear a temperamental lady of suspicion.  Father Brown is, happily, never called in to solve any ordinary mystery.  His cases are strange, unusual, sometimes with rather eerie complications, but his solutions are always worthy of them, for however odd or incredible or bizarre may be the difficulties with which the tubby little man with his shapeless umbrella may be faced Mr. Chesterton sees to it that his creation is consistently true to type in handling them without the assistance of the measuring tapes or microscopes so necessary to lay investigators.

 

Sat R (1st October 1927, 90w):

What a lot he sees, considering how short-sighted he is!  But it is not so much the detection of the crime, as the crime itself and its circumstances, that charm us in the annals of Father Brown.  His shadow does not grow less and his cases are still rich in ingenuity of conception and imaginative horror.

 

Spectator (1st October 1927, 300w):

The Gothic note of Mr. Chesterton’s imagination sometimes heightens a horror with a gargoylish effect; and the unexpected analyses of the priest contain some of the profounder paradoxes of the Chestertonian philosophy.  The detective instinct is gratified; but the psychological comment is more perturbing.  We are left thinking how desperate is the human heart, and how finite is human pardon.

 

NY Times (16th October 1927, 200w):

The stories are convincing and so different, both in plot construction and in the manner of telling, from the usual type detective stories that they are in a class all by themselves.

 

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Donald Douglas, 20th November 1927, 600w):

The stories are really essays in mysticism, with the added inducement of presenting the only real romance left in our age: the romance of an undiscovered crime performed under enigmatic circumstances.  The vague little priest has no brain like an adding machine or a desk sergeant’s rule of thumbprints.  He has a brain understanding men and the secret desires of the murderous heart.  In other words, Mr. Chesterton has wrought a miracle.  He has taken an art usually practiced by garbage men and clothed its form in the rainbow colours of poetry.