One of my rambles into rereads this summer has been this collection of Chesterton’s stories about his clerical detective, Father Brown. One of the reasons I decided to reread the stories is the BBC’s series aired in the UK earlier this year and which BBC Canada is rerunning on Thursdays at the moment. The television series shares with the stories the character of Father Brown and some of the titles, but, otherwise, the series is not a close adaptation of its source. Some of the plots of the episodes, “The Hammer of God,” for example, follow those of the original quite closely, but others have major discrepancies. The major location is no longer Essex but Gloucestershire; and the period, the early fifties. The stories were published between 1911 and 1935 and are set in that period or earlier. ITV also screened a series, first aired in the autumn of 1974 and starring Kenneth Moore, which remained, as I recall, somewhat truer to the world created by Chesterton in his stories.
However, Mark Williams’ characterisation of Father Brown does capture for me Chesterton’s Father Brown, and it is for the pleasure of his performances that I continue to watch the series, and, as I said, watching the series took me back to the stories themselves.
The Father Brown stories have been published in various formats since the emergence of the first collection The Innocence of Father Brown in 1911. The Wisdom of Father Brown appeared in 1914; The Incredulity of Father Brown, in 1926; The Secret of Father Brown, in 1927; and The Scandal of Father Brown, in 1935. I bought my mother Penguin’s The Complete Father Brown Stories a couple of years ago; my own edition, found with great glee at a reasonable price in a second-hand bookstore, is a hard back ninth edition of Cassell’s 1929 The Father Brown Stories. Given the time of publication and their context, it’s unsurprising that the stories seem at times dated. Certainly, Chesterton’s diction in reference to non-Europeans is often more than somewhat disturbing to contemporary sensibilities. The world he describes is still the world of empire, of casual, apparently unquestioned, systemic racial and cultural prejudice. So what is it about Chesterton’s stories that makes them still such engaging reading?
Well, they are still highly satisfactory “whodunit’s.” Father Brown deals with apparently locked rooms, mysterious disappearances, apparently impossible murders and thefts—all the usual challenges of traditional detective fiction—and reveals just how “it” was done. Some of the tales have a gothic mood, and Chesterton is a master of evoking atmosphere, whether in the empty stretches of a bleak North Sea shoreline in winter or in the languor of a Mexican border town. But Father Brown sees beyond atmosphere into what really is. He sees clearly and simply, so much so that those around him may initially take his simplicity for simple-mindedness.
Equally at home with a child on the beach, with an American millionaire, or a reformed thief, apparently unsophisticated to the point of naivety, his views often initially discounted or misunderstood by those around him, Father Brown demystifies the mysterious, and it is here, perhaps, that we see Brown as the persona for Chesterton the Christian apologist and ultimate Catholic. (For more information, you may be interested in checking out the following website among other sources: http://www.chesterton.org/discover-chesterton/frequently-asked-questions/father-brown/) “It’s the first effect of not believing in God,” says Father Brown, “that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are” (“The Oracle of the Dog,” Incredulity: Stories, 368).
Father Brown “sees things as they are” and so reveals the explanation to the mystery whether that mystery be the identity of a thief or murderer or the mundane explanation of apparently paranormal phenomena. Father Brown is first and foremost a Roman Catholic priest, and it is his faith that informs his world view and his actions. Ultimately, he is far more interested in saving a soul than in handing a criminal over to the justice system, and perhaps this is why Chesterton focuses far more on the moral implications of a crime and on people’s inability to see what is really the case than on the procedures of criminal investigation. In some cases, “The Chief Mourner of Marne,” (Secret), for example, or “The God of the Gongs” (Wisdom), while we are made aware of the criminal’s identity, we are never actually told whether the criminal is caught. In others, we know the criminal is never caught, and Flambeau, who becomes Father Brown’s friend, is such a one. “Only my friend [Father Brown] told me that he knew exactly why I stole; and I have never stolen since” (“The Confession of Flambeau,” Secret: Stories, 588), says Flambeau. For Father Brown, moral truth and the soul’s redemption are more important than mere justice.
It is this focus, I suspect, and the nature of Father Brown the character that explains his continuing popularity. In the stumpy little priest with round glasses, rumpled clothes, Cappello Romano, and untidy umbrella, Chesterton creates a character who charms and entertains us even as he asserts (and I paraphrase slightly here) that to attack reason is bad theology (“The Blue Cross,” Innocence: Stories, 23).
After-thought: I’m sure I’m not the first to wonder what a dinner party where Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown were both guests would be like. It would be hosted in the early nineteen-twenties by Lord Peter Wimsey in his rooms in Piccadilly; the meal, deftly served by Bunter. Who else would attend? Ashenden, perhaps, accompanied by Thomas Beresford, Drs. Thorndyke and Watson (of course), the refugee Poirot, and possibly a youthful Albert Campion. No doubt the port would be fine and the cigars the best Havanas, but I suspect there would be no female guests; much to her chagrin, Prudence Beresford (Tuppence) would be excluded.