The Advent of Father Brown

As a disciple of Poe and a rival of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the ingenious Mr. Gilbert Chesterton has made a by no means contemptible showing in the series of tales of the homicidal and criminal which have been collected [in The Innocence of Father Brown].
NEW YORK TIMES, DECEMBER 1911

Father Brown has a sharp clerical brain, a feeling for the turn of the screw, and an unastounded sense of the human drama.
V. S. PRITCHETT

Father Brown, that quintessentially English detective, made his first appearance in a highly unlikely place: the Saturday Evening Post.

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 15


Father Brown is one of the most memorable characters of fiction, but he was not entirely so.  G.K. Chesterton’s character was based on his friend Father John O’Connor whom he met in the spring of 1904 while on holiday in West Yorkshire.  The priest was already a fan and had sought an introduction, which was thankfully arranged.  The two men became fast friends and readers had benefitted ever since.

In Chapter 15 of Defiant Joy, Kevin Belmonte writes:

Both men long remembered the circumstance that led to the creation of Father Brown. “On their second meeting,” Maisie Ward wrote,

“Father O’Connor had startled, indeed almost shattered Gilbert, with certain rather lurid knowledge of human depravity which he had acquired in the course of his priestly experience. At the house to which they were going, two Cambridge undergraduates spoke disparagingly of the “cloistered” habits of the Catholic clergy, saying that to them it seemed that to know and meet evil was a far better thing than the innocence of such ignorance. To Gilbert, still under the shock of a knowledge compared with which “these two Cambridge gentlemen knew about as much of real evil as two babies in the same perambulator,” the exquisite irony of this remark suggested a thought. Why not a whole comedy of cross purposes based on the notion of a priest with a knowledge of evil deeper than that of the criminal he is converting?”

And so Father Brown was born. But that was one, among many reasons, why Chesterton was indebted to Father O’Connor for the gift of his friendship.

Has a friendship ever sparked creativity?

D I G  D E E P E R


Kevin Belmonte

Kevin Belmonte holds a BA in English from Gordon College, an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second master’s degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He has twice been a finalist for the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and in 2003, his biography, “William Wilberforce,” won that award. On several occasions, he has served as a script consultant for the BBC, and also for the PBS documentary, “The Better Hour.” For six years, he was the lead script and historical consultant for the critically-acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace.” He has spoken in a wide array of noteworthy settings, from the Houses of Parliament in London, and gatherings of legislators in Washington, D.C., to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. For several years, his biography of Wilberforce has been required reading for a course taught by David Gergen on leadership and character formation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Sources & Resources

V. S. Pritchett, as quoted on the front cover of Father Brown: The Essential Tales (New York: The Modern Library, 2005). Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900–1997) was a noted British writer and critic. Famous for his short stories, he also taught at Princeton, the University of California, Columbia University, and Smith College. He also published acclaimed biographies of Honoré de Balzac, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov. In recognition of his services to literature, he was knighted in 1975.

See Martin Gardener, ed., The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown (Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 279, wherein it is stated that the story “Valentin Follows a Curious Trail” was published on 7/23/1910. This story later appeared as “The Blue Cross” in the first collection of Father Brown mystery stories, The Innocence of Father Brown (London: Cassell, 1911/New York: John Lane Company, 1911). Chesterton scholar Hugh Robson has traced the initial publication of the first twelve Father Brown stories to Saturday Evening Post in 1910–11, where they appeared under different titles than those given them in The Innocence of Father Brown.

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life