Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Innocence of Father Brown

Wednesday, March 19, 2009

G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown is a collection of twelve very compact short stories. Everything about the stories is compact. The settings are compact. The number of characters is compact. The action is mostly circumscribed to a small space, and even the detective himself, Father Brown, almost melts into the background.

Really these are locked room kinds of mysteries which take place in gardens with no entrances or in isolated reed houses with only three people living in them. They have murders committed in closed houses where all the entrances are watched. The stories involve puzzles, how impossible things could happen, the kinds of things Agatha Christie would later do on a much larger scale.

These stories have a touch of genius to them. A story like "The Sign of the Broken Sword" makes you wonder about the veracity of history. "The Honour of Israel Gow" is almost Gothic in its mood and tone. And "The Blue Cross" is humorous in a special way.

"The Blue Cross" (the first Father Brown story) is also an exception in that it takes place on a larger landscape.

In one way, the stories aren't compact. The writing is expansive, sometimes mysterious or beautiful. One of my favorite stories, "The Blue Cross," begins, "Between the silver ribbon of morning and the green glittering ribbon of sea, the boat touched Harwich and let loose a swarm of folk like flies, among whom the man we must follow was by no means conspicuous--nor wished to be."

This book was published in 1911. There is even an annotated version for someone who wants to know the backgrounds from which the stories come. But for me, they are just well-written stories from another time. Father Brown and his sidekick (who is supposedly a great detective, a reformed master thief) are early examples of the way good mystery heroes are themselves unique characters, the unusual kinds of people a reader might want to get to know.

The book reflects Chesterton's Roman Catholic faith. Father Brown has an intuition of evil. Some of his crime solving has as its purpose either saving souls or pronouncing God's judgment in Brown's understated sort of way.

I can see why Chesterton's Father Brown stories are seen as among the early mystery classics.


Corey Wilde said...

My education in crime fiction is certainly incomplete. I keep meaning to read Chesterton's work. Sometimes I like edgy, sparse prose (a la Bruen) and sometimes I like the more expansive prose (as per the quote you used). As long as they tell me a good story in an entertaining way, I'm happy.

Joe Barone said...

These are good stories but most are locked room mystery types of stories, and they are "dated" (maybe not the right word) in style and content.