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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown

I have been reading Father Brown mystery stories by G.K. Chesterton for the last few weeks. Father Brown was created by Chesterton for a short story written in 1910 in which he outwits an international jewel thief in a most ingenious way, using to advantage his own very innocent appearance and personality against that of the thief. Father Brown went on to have 51 more adventures in short stories, which were later collected into five books.

What I most like about him is that he is very wise and very clever at bringing the morality of the tale to the fore without preachiness. When a famous detective asks him how he can be so opposite of naïve despite his chosen life, he says, “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?” He is not at all condescending to the detective, who displays a degree of opaqueness about the Catholic priesthood that is remarkably naïve in itself; instead Father Brown simply wishes to be open about his methods and abilities.

At the end of every tale he explains how he has figured out the crime, and every one of them is so very clever that I have not been able to solve any of them before reading the explanation. This is going to make me reread every one of the stories to spot where the clues are buried, because they are there, I just have not latched onto Chesterton’s very subtle methods yet.

Another thing I like about these stories is that Father Brown solves the crimes using his understanding of logic, reason, psychology, and spiritual reality, and you cannot separate any of these factors out and still be successful. It is a powerful apology for the integration of spirituality in the mainstream of life. Father Brown represents G.K. Chesterton’s argument for the Roman Catholic Church against the other mainstream churches of his day, especially those that allowed for the growing materialism of outlook in all facets of life instead of standing against the tide of anti-spiritual philosophy. At the end of many stories you find Father Brown taking the criminal aside and helping him or her come to a state of repentance—surely this is unique among detective stories and to me very refreshing!

Finally, G.K. Chesterton is a master of English style. Reading his works is pure pleasure.

Copyright BBC Productions
The BBC began a television series of Father Brown stories set in the 1950s in the Cotswolds, starring Mark Williams as Father Brown (you may remember him as the father of the Weasley family in the Harry Potter films.) They are charming and fun, though only part of them are actually Chesterton stories. Here is a photo of the main cast from season 1: Nancy Carroll as the socialite Lady Felicia, Sorcha Cusack as Father Brown’s parish secretary Mrs. MacCarthy, Mark Williams as Father Brown, Hugo Speer as Inspector Valentine, Kasia Koleczek as Father Brown’s Polish housekeeper Susie Jasinski, and Alex Price as occasional petty criminal Sid Carter who is reformed by Father Brown. Keep your eye out for them, and better yet,  download the books--they are in the public domain.

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