The first Father Brown story, The Blue Cross, was published in 1910, and many other stories followed, being collected into five volumes: The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914), The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), The Secret of Father Brown (1927) and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). They are all detective stories, with Father Brown, an English Catholic priest, solving mysteries which baffle others.
Father Brown is an insignificant sort of man – short and round, invariably clad in clerical black, with a large hat and stumpy umbrella – who is often quiet. When he speaks, it is to the point. His deductions tend to be more intuitive than rational, based on what he knows of the people involved, and his knowledge of the worst of human nature as revealed to him in the confessional, but there are exceptions, such as in The Quick One (in The Scandal of Father Brown).
In many of the cases, particularly in The Incredulity of Father Brown, there is often an apparently supernatural explanation for the crime – usually murder – which the supposedly unsuperstitious characters, unable to explain the case by rational means, resort to the supernatural. However, the decidedly rational priest is the one who deduces what must have happened and therefore who the killer must be. There’s often something fantastical about the way Chesterton conveys the scene: he’s a very descriptive writer, conjuring up colours and pictures with only a few words, stemming from his early training as an artist:
“… In terms of tone and form, as these men saw it, it was a stretch of sands against a stretch of sunset, the whole scene lying in strips of sombre colour, dead green and bronze and brown and a drab that was not merely dull but in that gloaming in some way more mysterious than gold. All that broke these level lines was a long building which ran out from the fields into the sands of the sea, so that its fringe of dreary weeds and rushes seemed almost to meet the seaweed. But its most singular feature was that the upper part of it had the ragged outlines of a ruin, pierced by so many wide windows and large rents as to be a mere dark skeleton against the dying light; while the lower bulk of the building had hardly any windows at all, most of them being blind and bricked up and their outlines only faintly traceable in the twilight. But one window at least was still a window; and it seemed strangest of all that it showed a light.”
(‘The Doom of the Darnaways’ – from The Incredulity of Father Brown)
The stories are very readable, and Father Brown’s emphasis on rationalism and the importance of reason – in general life as well as in detection – is refreshing (even if to this unbeliever, his belief is God is less rational). Chesterton does, unfortunately, use certain racist terms – however, in many cases it’s evidently not meant pejoratively but as a descriptive term. He despises most ‘Eastern’ religions and their practitioners – though he treats the Muslim cleric in The Quick One with authorial respect – and definitely abhors anything smacking of the unethical or hypocritical, such as the Indian mystic in The Red Moon of Meru, who allows himself to be thought a thief since it implies he has powers he does not have. In this he is perhaps not unrepresentative of his time.
Like Horne Fisher in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Father Brown has travelled widely, having been sent as priest to parishes in England, the USA and South America, and visited Europe, often with his friend Hercule Duroc, the former criminal known as Flambeau (who appears in many of the stories as a foil to the priest) – several of the stories have American characters, particularly of the millionaire variety. Chesterton also rarely features women in these stories – the victims of murder are almost always men, and so are the criminals – though they are occasionally more prominent.
Although the quality of the stories does vary, there’s nearly always some clever insight or beautiful description – and they are very inventive with settings, even if the motives are often similar. However, Chesterton is able to vary the style and characters and the environment of the stories sufficiently that they don’t feel samey, nor does one feel that once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.
Recommended for anyone who likes detective fiction and short stories.