The first Father Brown short mystery, “The Blue Cross,” written by G. K. Chesterton, was published in 1910. The amateur sleuth was so popular that Chesterton wrote more than four dozen additional stories featuring the humble priest. With Sherlock Holmes standing as the widely acknowledged master of crime solving through logic and deduction, Father Brown chose a different path, relying on intuition and his fervent comprehension of the human heart.
In “The Queer Feet,” one of the early stories, Chesterton refers to Father Brown as “a mild hard-working little priest.” And that is the image he continues to project. He often appears somewhat distracted and a little unfocused. He seems to prefer being in the background and going unnoticed, almost begging to be dismissed as irrelevant. He credits his unfailing ability to see through the worst behavior of the criminal mind to his many years in the confessional granting absolution for every imaginable sin, and confounds the criminals who cross his path by use of his unerring sense of human frailties. Witness his conversation in this video from the 1954 movie, Meet Father Brown, released in the United States as The Detective. And yes, that is Alec Guinness playing the role of the good Father.
As P. D. James wrote in her Introduction to Father Brown, the Essential Tales, “We read the Father Brown stories for a variety pleasures, including their ingenuity, their wit and intelligence, and for the brilliance of the writing. But they provide more. Chesterton was concerned with the greatest of all problems, the vagaries of the human heart.” And Chesterton’s legion of fans keep him in their hearts through organizations like the American Chesterton Society.
Infrequently, critics have opined that the Father Brown stories written in the later years lose their kick and become routine. I’ve never found that to be true. Clearly Chesterton does imbue his more serious philosophical opinions in his stories, such as this line from the next to last paragraph “The Oracle of the Dog” written in 1926. Says Brown, “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are.” Yes, it’s heavy going, but the reader takes the religious conversations in stride. Father Brown is, after all, a priest and he has just solved what is arguably an outdoor, locked-room murder. He debunked a supernatural explanation that others were ready to accept. I’m happy to have him tell us what really happened in any terms he sees fit.
And Father Brown does seem to have a profound religious effect on those who associate with him. Chesterton converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922 and much of his later non-fiction reflected his beliefs.
More dramatically, Alec Guinness was so taken with how people responded to him when he was wearing the frock required for his priestly role that he began stopping in Catholic chapels for prayers, particularly when a family illness caused much distress. He and his entire family subsequently converted to the Roman Catholic faith.
In addition to the religious sentiments, the Father Brown stories also have an old-fashioned feel when it comes to language and style of writing which are enjoyable and comforting. (And, not incidentally, remind us not to take offense at the ethnic references which are appropriate to the time in which the stories were written.)
So, tell me, have you ever read G. K. Chesterton’s stories about the pleasantly doddering Father Brown? And in the present mystery climate of blood, gore, and hi-tech, would you recommend him to a friend?