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

By G.K. Chesterton

First published: UK, Cassell, 1914; USA, John Lane, 1915


The Absence of Mr. Glass

This is the famous story in which Father Brown vies with a Holmesian detective to solve the mystery concerning a lodger. The multiple solutions, parodying The Blue Carbuncle, are ingenious, and Brown’s solution is completely unexpected.

 

The Paradise of Thieves

A picturesque situation — capture of Englishmen abroad by banditti — in a highly romanticised and Impressionist Italy. There is no real “mystery” per se; rather the need to explain what certain events, including Father Brown’s cryptic utterances (‘Be ready to rescue her from the rescue’), mean.

 

The Duel of Dr. Hirsch

Easily the best story in the collection, this sombre story, with its Parisian setting, concerns, like The Sins of Prince Saradine and The Chief Mourner of Marne, a crooked duel, with espionage behind—but with complications. “If he’s a French patron he didn’t write it, because it gives information to Germany. And if he’s a German spy he didn’t write it, well — because it doesn’t give information to Germany.” The solution is bizarre and utterly memorable, and is an ingenious variation on “The Secret Garden” and “The Absence of Mr. Glass”, but infinitely more disturbing.

 

The Man in the Passage

Sayers’ favourite of the Father Brown tales, this story of murder in a theatre committed virtually before the reader’s eyes, with the conclusion given during a dramatic court scene, is technically perfect, with first-class misdirection.

This is the story featuring Patrick Butler, later used as a sleuth by John Dickson Carr.

 

The Mistake of the Machine

The worst Father Brown story. Although there are some interesting comments on truth machines, it is far too complicated for its own good, so that the main details of the plot cannot be remembered an hour later.

 

The Head of Caesar

This comes a close second to “The Duel of Dr. Hirsch” as the best story in the collection. Father Brown and Flambeau shine from the dream-like and fantastic beginning of the man with the crooked nose, who “has gone a very crooked road — by following his nose,” through the contrast between gold and natural light, to the revelation of true iniquity and vileness, amidst a terrifying atmosphere of wrongness.

 

The Purple Wig

In this story, told through the letters of a journalist to his editor (a rather M.R. Jamesian technique!), Father Brown destroys (as he would in future cases — c.f. “The Perishing of the Pendragons” and The Doom of the Darnaways) a romantic family curse: the Devil’s Ear of Eyre — a dramatic climax.

 

The Perishing of the Pendragons

Like the excellent “Sins of Prince Saradine”, which it resembles, this story is set on a romantic river island, and concerns an ingenious method of murder by proxy — here, using a family curse / legend to secure an inheritance. The exciting climax with fire and water reveals a good bad murderer, who is, of course, an atheist.

 

The God of the Gongs

Perhaps Chesterton’s least “politically correct” tale, with its negro villain named Nigger Ned. In defence of the story, there is the dismal and forlorn seaside setting, “as dreary as a lost railway-carriage,” and the two brilliant gimmicks.

 

The Salad of Colonel Cray

More foreign religions; here, Indian mysticism is used to disguise a cold-blooded murder attempt. As a kid, I loved this one, mainly for the superb line: “If you had only seen the Monkey’s Feet, we should have been very gentle — you would only be tortured and die. If you had seen the Monkey’s Face, still we should be very moderate, very tolerant — you would only be tortured and live. But as you have seen the Monkey’s Tail, we must pronounce the worst sentence. Which is — Go Free”.  The plot’s slight, though, and the poison is an untraceable one unknown to science.

 

The Strange Crime of Colonel Boulnois

Is this the first time the gimmick was used? The collection was published in 1913; Trent’s Last Case in 1912; and The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes in 1927. Be that as it may, this is a fine story, which sheds an interesting light on morality and jealousy, and which boasts a picturesque murder following a performance of Romeo and Juliet and an eerie M.R. James nocturnal walk.

 

The Fairy Tale of Father Brown

In this highly romantic historical story, Father Brown acts as armchair detective to solve the mystery of an inexplicable murder committed fifty years in the past: how could a man have been shot in a country without guns? The solution is strong, ingenious and bizarre, but the piece is too much of an obvious fantasy to be totally convincing.


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Harry Pirie-Gordon, 22nd October 1914):

Once more Mr. G.K. Chesterton unfolds The Wisdom of Father Brown, who moves amid mysteries and sheds light in dark places.  Who but Mr. Chesterton would permit a Duke to wear a purple wig in order to conceal the fact that his features were perfectly normal, or introduce the voodooistic God of the Gongs into a pugilistic exhibition on the East Coast?  Nor is it every man who can produce a duel like that of Dr. Hirsch, or a vanity so colossal as that which consumed Sir Claude Champion.  The disputed identity of the Man in the Passage is highly intriguing, but it is difficult to see why the polite Father Brown should have been wearing his hat at the moment when he looked along the passage.  In this collection of pleasing tales there is nothing of that rather ponderous statement of the case which is, as a rule, habitual with most writers of criminal or even semi-criminal romance.  Mr. Chesterton flits butterfly-like over a meringue of mystery where other men might present the reader with a solid sandwich of detailed horror and elaborate observation.  A painstaking policy of this nature often enables the expert reader of such stories to unravel the plot for himself and lay his finger—in the second chapter—on the villain to be unmasked in the last.  With Mr. Chesterton it is different.  No one will guess who mixed the salad for Colonel Cray, or why, nor will they be able to estimate in advance the influence exercised by the Monkey God upon the mustard.

 

Spec (31st October 1914, 1350w):

Whatever criticisms may be passed on Mr. Chesterton’s detective stories, they have at least the great attraction of unconventionality, and alike in subject and treatment differ widely from most ventures into this domain of fiction.

 

NY Times (Hildegarde Hawthorne, 24th January 1915, 1100w):

The level of these stories is so high that one cannot pick and choose.

 

Boston Transcript (E.F.E., 27th January 1915, 1100w):

It was a peculiarly Chestertonian device to select a clergyman, and a Catholic priest at that, as his pursuer of criminals, but it is very evident from a reading of but two or three tales in this or in the earlier collection that the Chestertonian ingenuity goes no further.  Impossible as detective stories.  Yes.  But not impossible in their revelation of the aptness of Chestertonian philosophy and in their exposition of Chestertonian verbal ingenuity.

 

Wis Lib Bull (February 1915, 30w):

They equal in interest and workmanship the earlier collection.

 

Nation (25th February 1915, 230w):

The dozen stories which make up this volume are still ingeniously contrived, but they seem to lack freshness and spontaneity, and in the reasoning of some of them not even the appearance of logic is observed.

 

Cath World (March 1915, 300w):

But if Father Brown is altogether delightful, this latest series of stories in which he figures cannot be equally recommended.  They seem shallow, fantastic, and at times utterly improbable.

 

Atlan (October 1915, 80w):

It is rather like putting mayonnaise on spice-cakes.  Why squander such perfect mayonnaise?  The truth is that there is too little Chesterton in this world for any of the precious stuff to be wasted.  Let other folk do detective stories.