How G.K. Chesterton’s "little priest" saved the soul of detective fiction
1924 illustration by Frank G. Jefferies
In 1910 the world was on the brink of a new era. George V succeeded his father, King Edward, to the throne of England. Halley’s Comet made its perihelion, and a day later, as he predicted he would, Mark Twain died. William James and Leo Tolstoy passed later that same year. Enrico Caruso’s performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera became the world’s first live musical broadcast on radio. Gaslit streets and hansom cabs were giving way to electric lights and motor cars.
And one humble Catholic priest from Essex was about to shake up an entire literary genre.
The priest was Father Brown, the invention of Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), a novelist, poet, and general man of letters. The story was “The Blue Cross,” first published in 1910.
G.K. Chesterton eventually wrote over 50 stories about Father Brown. Their impact on crime fiction was enormous. According to critic Howard Haycraft, Chesterton’s “brilliant style and fertile imagination brought new blood to the genre; gave it a needed and distinctly ‘literary’ turn that was to have far-reaching effect.”
The character of Father Brown was largely inspired by Chesterton’s friendship with Father John O’Connor. Chesterton met the parish priest in 1904 while on a lecture tour in Yorkshire. He was struck by the deep understanding this priest had of the human condition. Far from being a sheltered innocent, in the course of his ministry Father O’Connor had observed humanity at its lowest. Chesterton wrote, “It was a curious experience to find that this quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses far deeper than I.”
Once, when Chesterton and O’Conner were in a pub chatting with a pair of Cambridge undergraduates, one of the students commented that people like O’Connor are “all shut up in a sort of cloister” and that rather than facing the evil that’s in the world, the priest was “afraid of knowledge.” Chesterton was intrigued by the comment and the extent to which his friend was underestimated, writing, “To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me, this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a loud harsh laugh.”
Ever a lover of paradox, Chesterton began thinking about “making some artistic use of these comic yet tragic cross-purposes; and constructing a comedy in which a priest should appear to know nothing and in fact know more about crime than criminals.”
A New Kind of Detective
At the time of the publication of the first Father Brown story, crime fiction fit into three fairly distinct categories based on the type of hero in the story: Police Officers, Great Detectives, and Gentleman Thieves.
Police heroes include Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, Wilkie Collins’ Scotland Yard detective Sgt. Cuff in The Moonstone, and a host of others in the sensational periodicals of the day.
Sherlock Holmes exemplifies the Great Detective, a sleuth with seemingly superhuman intellectual abilities and often an ego and other personality flaws to match.
In 1898, E.W. Hornung updated the Robin Hood legend with his cricket-champion gentleman thief, A.J. Raffles, thereby creating the third category of crime fiction hero.
In creating Father Brown, Chesterton gave an entirely fresh approach to detective fiction. As author Neil Gaiman said, Father Brown “seems created less as a detective than as a reaction to detectives.” While still in the tradition of the Great Detective, Father Brown is “Great” with a twist. He is humble, and doesn’t claim to have any extraordinary mental skills. He is neither a professional policeman nor an amateur sleuth. In his very first case, the priest outsmarts a notorious criminal, outdoes the police, and performs it all with humility and with a desire to save a man’s soul rather than to solve a crime.
“The Blue Cross,” Chesterton’s first Father Brown story, opens with a police detective determined to track down a famous French thief named Flambeau who has just arrived in London. The detective is Aristide Valentin, whom we learn is no less than “the head of the Paris Police.” Notice that already two of the traditional hero-types are on stage: the cop and the crook. Their very names give us a hint of the sort of archetypes they represent: Flambeau—from the French for “torch”—carries an implication of flamboyance, while Valentin—from the Latin for “worthy”—suggests a worthy rival, and like Saint Valentine, a pious and doggedly determined character.
Valentin learns that a priest is arriving from Essex with a valuable silver crucifix inset with sapphires to present at a religious conclave. Certain he knows Flambeau’s target, Valentin sets out to trap the thief. But then Valentin loses the trail and finds himself in the wake of a series of bizarre pranks—events which have, nonetheless, led him to his quarry. He considers the odd course of his investigation as he hides behind a tree, eavesdropping as Flambeau, disguised as a priest, discusses theology with Father Brown:
But when Valentin thought of all that had happened in between, of all that had led him to his triumph, he racked his brains for the smallest rhyme or reason in it. What had the stealing of a blue-and-silver cross from a priest from Essex to do with chucking soup at wall paper? What had it to do with calling nuts oranges, or with paying for windows first and breaking them afterwards? He had come to the end of his chase; yet somehow he had missed the middle of it. When he failed (which was seldom), he had usually grasped the clue, but nevertheless missed the criminal. Here he had grasped the criminal, but still he could not grasp the clue.
The prankster, of course, is Father Brown and his purpose was to both discern the motives of the disguised Flambeau and keep Valentin on hand in case of trouble.
Despite himself, Flambeau can’t resist boasting about his criminal prowess, but he soon gets a lesson in his craft from the little Essex priest. Finally, at a word from Father Brown, Valentin and his fellow officers reveal themselves:
...the three policemen came out from under the twilight trees. Flambeau was an artist and a sportsman. He stepped back and swept Valentin a great bow.
“Do not bow to me, mon ami,” said Valentin with silver clearness. “Let us both bow to our master.”
And they both stood an instant uncovered while the little Essex priest blinked about for his umbrella.
Lofty Goals and Unusual Methods
Father Brown broke the rules—often literally—as we see throughout “The Blue Cross,” and in various other stories, allowing crimes to be committed when it served a higher purpose. He saw himself as the agent of a Divine Power with an authority that could trump the laws of man. The paramount goal is saving a soul, not catching a criminal or solving a mystery.
Although he was perfectly capable of brilliant deductions, Father Brown, unlike Holmes, often made use of intuition to solve crimes. He knew “whodunit” because he understood the mind of the sinner.
In “The Secret of Father Brown” (1927) he describes his method with the shocking revelation:
“You see, it was I who killed all those people.”
And then he explains:
“I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”
That a man of God could look into the heart of evil is a prime example of a Chestertonian paradox. Paradox was at the heart of everything G.K. Chesterton did. He loved putting seemingly opposite ideas and images together to make a startling, and usually funny, point. He once described courage as “a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.” A sane man is one “who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head.” In his essay “Two Kinds of Paradox” he quipped that he often saw the word cosmic misprinted as comic, but that “the two are much the same.” This sort of paradoxical playfulness permeates all of Chesterton’s writing: theology, politics, poetry, and of course, his Father Brown stories.
We find a good example of such a paradox at the end of “The Queer Feet” (1910), when Father Brown faces the wealthy and elite members of a dining club, ironically called “The Twelve True Fishermen,” and returns stolen silverware that he has taken from the repentant crook. When the club members ask about the thief, the priest responds:
“I don’t know his real name...but I know something of his fighting weight, and a great deal about his spiritual difficulties. I formed the physical estimate when he was trying to throttle me, and the moral estimate when he repented.”
“Oh, I say—repented!” cried young Chester, with a sort of crow of laughter.
Father Brown got to his feet, putting his hands behind him. “Odd, isn’t it,” he said, “that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man?”
A bit later comes this exchange:
“Did you catch this man?” asked the colonel, frowning.
Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
The Metaphysical Detective Story
Howard Haycraft said that “it may well be Chesterton’s chief contribution to the genre that he perfected the metaphysical detective story.” This last notion—the metaphysical detective story—is easily misunderstood by the modern reader. What I believe Haycraft meant was that the little detective’s task was not to solve the crime, but, in some surprising and paradoxical manner, to set the world back to some semblance of moral order.
What made this innocuous cleric and his exploits unique? The Father Brown stories had a depth that hadn’t been seen before in detective fiction. Chesterton infused his puzzles with profound ideas, humor, morality, and paradox. They fulfill what Chesterton saw as the essential value of detective fiction, “that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.”
G.K. Chesterton in a 1912 caricature by Strickland published in Vanity Fair.
• "By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece."
G.K. Chesterton, “On Detective Novels,” Generally Speaking
• “The detective story differs from every other story in this: that the reader is only happy if he feels a fool.”
G.K. Chesterton, “On Detective Novels,” Generally Speaking
Steven Steinbock is a freelance journalist living in Maine. Every Friday he blogs about mystery short stories at criminalbrief.com.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.