The Innocence Of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

“Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest? He grows a forest to hide it in.”


The term “bigger than life” is now cliché but it is in no way ironic when applied to G.K. Chesterton.  It begins with his stature (6’4” and over 300 pounds), but even that great frame is dwarfed by his intellect and imagination.  His writings seem endless, and every sentence is packed with wit and nuance with a saturation that makes skimming impossible.  He was a master of nonfiction, but some of his most artful work was in the character of Father Brown.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe created a new literary genre with a handful of stories that each pose a seemingly insoluble mystery that is finally solved by the intellectual brilliance of his detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Some fifty years later, Arthur Conan Doyle brought the mystery genre to an even higher level with his novels and short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, an eccentric detective who used the science of deduction and his powers of observation to solve the crimes set before him. Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a great fan of the Holmes stories, and wrote highly entertaining essays about the mystery genre. He set down his thoughts about what made for a good “whodunit,” and put his theories to the test by writing some stories of his own.

Chesterton modeled his detective, the genial Father Brown, on his friend Father John O’Connor, a priest whose intellectual capacities and wit he much enjoyed. The first twelve short stories were first published in The Saturday Evening Post, and then collected in a book as The Innocence of Father Brown. By the time of his death, Chesterton had produced fifty-one stories about the mystery-solving clergyman. The stories were an immediate hit and became the most popular and successful of his many books. Their format is predictable, but the solutions to the crimes are not. As in any good mystery, a puzzle is set forth in each story that defies logic and seems impossible to untangle. But the quiet little priest, Father Brown, succeeds where everyone else fails because of the insight he has attained about the darker shades of human motivation from hearing confessions. Father Brown is an easy man to overlook—a short, stubby, unimposing figure, shabbily dressed and with a round, expressionless face that renders him almost invisible. The police investigating the crimes generally fail to pay him much attention until Father Brown gently and relentlessly unravels the hidden truth.

Have you read Chesterton? Which work is your favorite?


John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

(1874–1936), poet and essayist. After beginning a course of training in art in 1891, he abandoned it for journalism. His defence of orthodoxy and conventionality in an individual and unconventional style soon established his literary reputation. Among those of his early works which were directly or indirectly concerned with religious topics, the best known are Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1908). His poems include the hymn ‘O God of earth and altar’. In his novels there is less of religious interest, though his appreciation of the RC clergy appears in the ‘Father Brown’ stories. In 1922 he left the C of E for the RC Church; but the change of allegiance had little effect on his style or outlook. His Autobiography (1936) gives an illuminating picture of literary-religious circles from c. 1895 to his death.

 

The Mystery Deepens

With Father Brown, a sleuth who plumbed hearts, Chesterton redefined the “whodunit.”

Nearly everyone agrees that Chesterton achieved something extraordinary with his Father Brown stories. Yet after literally hundreds of commentators have had their say, there is still no consensus about what his achievement was or in what ways Father Brown is significant. Truly, these critics are so at odds with one another that often they do not seem to be discussing the same stories.
Part of the problem is that Chesterton’s stories resist analysis from the specialist’s point of view. For example, not many who are experts in the field of detective fiction understand Chesterton as a philosopher. These critics react to Chesterton’s moral and political ideas as if they were an intrusion of irrelevant propaganda.

Similarly, few students of Chesterton are mystery story enthusiasts, and fewer still are conversant with scholarship on the detective genre. They often fail to appreciate Chesterton’s work within the framework of this literary form.

The Father Brown stories follow a format developed in the nineteenth century for readers of the new mass-circulation magazines. The formula, invented by Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s, boils down to this:
A mystifying crime is discovered, and a plausible explanation proves elusive. The mystery deepens until the eccentric but brainy sleuth (not a member of the official police) deduces the truth and reveals the surprising solution at the story’s conclusion. The sleuth then reappears in subsequent magazine stories to solve other puzzling crimes.

Arthur Conan Doyle perfected this approach with his tales of the peerless Sherlock Holmes, written for The Strand magazine in the 1890s. Conan Doyle aimed to compete against the serialized novel with a character whose fascinating personal appeal—rather than a continuing cliff-hanger plot—would keep readers coming back for more. It was the greatest success in magazine publishing history.

Conan Doyle’s triumph was not lost on The Strand’s competitors. A host of Holmes-like sleuths soon appeared, each with his own series of linked short stories. Unfortunately none of these had the Sherlock Holmes magic, and today the stories seem hopelessly artificial and contrived.

Chesterton said as much at the time. He was the first respected literary critic to write extensively on the genre and the first to formulate the rules that would come to govern the classic “whodunit.”
Chesterton’s ideas dominated the so-called Golden Age of the mystery story and remained unchallenged until American pulp-fiction writers introduced the street-wise and tough-as-nails private eye, of which Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade remains the archetype.

Rules of the game

Chesterton insisted that detective stories must focus on domestic crimes enacted in familiar settings, with the action restricted to a short span of time, a confined place, and a small cast of characters. He conceived of the stories as a kind of literary game and demanded that writers play fair by showing their readers all the clues known to the sleuth.

He also insisted that, however complex the mystery might be made to appear, its eventual solution had to be simple enough to explain in a single shout from the rooftops. His illustrative example was, “The Archdeacon is Bloody Bill!”

Chesterton deplored the focus on mere mechanics of crime and detection—the easy way out for writers trying to imitate Conan Doyle. Chesterton faulted a story if it turned on a trick of detail rather than the drama of human interaction.

He disliked learning at the end that a high wall had not been a barrier to the suspect because the man had once been a pole-vaulter, or discovering on the last page that the main confusion in a story had been caused by the presence of someone’s identical twin brother. Chesterton demanded an emphasis on the human aspects of the case—motives, emotions, and choices freely made.
In 1910 Chesterton’s critical theories were put to the test when his Father Brown stories began appearing in The Saturday Evening Post. The stories followed the Poe and Conan Doyle formula, but they also fulfilled Chesterton’s own rules and ideals. When the first 12 tales were collected and published as The Innocence of Father Brown, mystery specialist Ellery Queen called it “The Miracle Book of 1911.”

The Father Brown series eventually reached a total of 51 short stories, collected in five volumes. They are universally admired for their ingenious crimes and brilliant detection. No mystery writer has devised more inventive plots or so effectively paraded his clues before a perplexed readership.

The heretic hunter

Of equal significance for the future of the genre, Chesterton turned away from artificially tricky puzzles to an emphasis on character, following the example of the great Victorian novelists who had dabbled in the detective story form—Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Wilkie Collins.

The Father Brown stories achieve remarkable depth and richness in their intellectual themes. Chesterton, of course, was a man of ideas, and he was convinced that ideas influence behavior—bad ideas cause bad behavior. He therefore peopled his stories with villains and fools whose ignoble actions flow from their mistaken ideologies.

Thus Father Brown is actually more of a heretic hunter than he is an amateur policeman. As the priest explains to one of his detective friends, he has never had anything to do with “running down criminals.” Instead, he makes it his business to confront the same errors that Chesterton warred against in his journalism.

Each of the stories may be read as an analogue of one of Chesterton’s argumentative essays. Perhaps the most familiar example is “The Queer Feet,” in which Father Brown laments the sort of moral blindness that makes servants invisible to their masters. The priest’s view precisely echoes Chesterton, who commented at length on the subject in his Illustrated London News essay of September 9, 1911.
Father Brown captured the attention of the leading mystery writers of the day and set the tone and direction of detective fiction for a generation. E.C. Bentley dedicated his groundbreaking 1912 novel Trent’s Last Case to Chesterton and insisted that he had written the book with Chesterton’s principles in mind.

In 1929, when Anthony Berkeley founded London’s Detection Club, one of its avowed purposes was to promote the very ideals that Chesterton had articulated as a critic and had realized so successfully in his stories. The small and select group included such luminaries as Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Freeman Wills Crofts.

Chesterton, of course, was duly installed as the club’s first president, a position he held until his death in 1936.

Sources & Resources

John Peterson, “The Mystery Deepens,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 75: G.K. Chesterton: Prolific Writer & Apologist (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2002).

Collected Works, ed. D. Dooley (San Francisco, 1986 ff.). Lives by M. Ward (London, 1944; with a further study, Return to Chesterton, 1952), D. Barker (London, 1973), A. S. Dale (Grand Rapids [1982]), and J. Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence (1996). C. Hollis, The Mind of Chesterton (1970). D. J. Conlon (ed.), G. K. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views (Oxford and New York, 1987). J. Sullivan, G. K. Chesterton: A Bibliography (1958; with suppl., 1968). M. Ward in DNB, 1931–1940, pp. 171–5.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 330.

Chesterton, G. K. The Penguin Complete Father Brown. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Coren, Michael. Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton. New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Dale, Alzina Stone. The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G. K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Peters, Thomas C. Battling for the Modern Mind: A Beginner’s Chesterton. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1994.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

 

Terry Glaspey

 

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!

Terry

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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.