This rather surprised me by being a collection of short stories rather than a novel (I was expecting something more like The Man Who Was Thursday), all connected by the presence of Horne Fisher – the man who knows everything. In them all, some crime is committed, whether serious – such as murder – or not so serious – such as the theft of a silver coin – and Fisher is on hand with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the world to solve the mystery.
Some of the stories work better as straightforward detection than others, such as ‘The Bottomless Well’, but in nearly all Chesterton plays with the reader by giving Fisher knowledge that is not presented to the reader. He also likes to hide things in plain sight, and deceive observers into thinking things have happened in a particular way when in fact the opposite has occurred. Some of the events are downright bizarre or even grotesque, and one or two of the stories leave a bit of a nasty flavour – it’s no surprise that Chesterton was accused of anti-Semitism, given the evidence of ‘The Fad of the Fisherman’, for example. There’s evidently not much respect for Arabs in ‘The Bottomless Well’, since they are regarded as rather ‘savage’. It’s also plain that he doesn’t care much for or have a great opinion of politicians; the penultimate story, ‘The Temple of Silence’, tells how Fisher was elected to Parliament but never took his seat, after revelation of very shady dealings.
Chesterton trained as an artist, and there’s evidence of an artistic sensibility informing his fiction:
From behind the paling rose the great grey columns of a row of poplars, which filled the heavens above them with dark-green shadow and shook faintly in a wind which had sunk slowly into a breeze. The afternoon was already deepening into evening, and the titanic shadows of the poplars lengthened over a third of the landscape.
(from ‘The Face in the Target’)
Fisher gets around – he’s somewhere in the Middle East in ‘The Bottomless Well’, and in Ireland in ‘The Vanishing Prince’ – but most of the time he’s found in England, amongst the landed gentry and Establishment figures of government and influence. He is evidently a patriot, but not a blind patriot, and is clear-eyed (if cynical) about the motives of man.
The stories are clever and well-written, though sometimes Chesterton can be a bit too clever for realism, in my opinion. As you’ll have guessed, there’s absolutely no relationship between these stories and the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. Still, I found the stories in general absorbing and enjoyable (except for the previously mentioned reservations).
*The various stories, and the events of the last story, in particular, cast doubt on the date of original publication that I’ve been able to find for this book – namely 1922. I’d have thought that the complete lack of reference to the events of World War I implies an earlier publication date than 1914.