The Mystical Vision of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown
For G.K. Chesterton it is ordinary circumstances, not extraordinary ones, that conceal the greatest mysteries
When Saint Paul says, speaking of the analogy between marital union and the union of Christ with the church, “this is a great mystery,” he reveals something essential not only about marriage and about Christ or the church, but about mystery itself. Some of the most profound mysteries live closest to home; these are not revealed by any special kind of knowledge, but by a special kind of looking. G.K. Chesterton seems to understand this when he writes that “when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.” He is a master at seeing the mysterious and wondrous concealed within the familiar. This outlook drips, thick as honey, from his non-fiction, but it also undergirds and lends form to his detective stories.
Chesterton contends that the detective story, though often sensational and occasionally rude, is unique among popular literary forms for its ability to express “some sense of the poetry of modern life.” It can infuse a plain and dreary city with a heightened sense of Romance; it can turn a lowly cab driver into a figure of supreme importance. Where other genres risk turning haughty or pedantic, the detective mystery “declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as commonplace.” For Chesterton it is ordinary circumstances, not extraordinary ones, that conceal the greatest mysteries—it is ordinary circumstances that are the most extraordinary. In his detective fiction this often means that characters who fixate on the sensational evidence will miss the truth of the case, while those who attend to the ordinary prove to be the most successful detectives.
Chesterton’s detectives—especially Father Brown—approach mysteries with a preference for the ordinary. Though Chesterton frequently expressed his admiration for the craft of the Sherlock Holmes stories, he still suspected that there was something fundamentally unrealistic about the way the Baker Street Bloodhound went about solving crimes. Chesterton’s own detectives never rely on any special knowledge of the coagulation of blood or encyclopedic familiarity with cigar ash, or a copious awareness of every headline in every paper on any given day. Instead we see them making sense of evidence from a broad familiarity with the common patterns of life and the common natures of things.
Alec Guiness famously played Father Brown in a series of films in the 1950’s.
Chesterton does little to conceal this economy in his earliest works of detective fiction (eventually collected as The Club of Queer Trades). Those early stories follow the exploits of two brothers—Rupert and Basil Grant. Rupert, the younger brother, is a private detective and brilliant practitioner of the deductive method after the fashion of Sherlock Holmes. Basil, the elder, is a retired judge who spent years studying human nature in the courtroom and now puts more stock in intuition than the testimony of bald facts. In “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown,” the title character stumbles upon a letter that seems to order his murder:
Dear Mr. Plover, I am annoyed to hear that some delay has occurred in the arrangement re Major Brown. Please see that he is attacked as per arrangement to-morrow. The coal-cellar, of course. Yours faithfully, P.G. Northover
Between the letter and a patch of pansies in his front garden spelling out “Death to Major Brown,” the Major reasonably concludes that he is in mortal danger and takes his troubles to Rupert, who quickly reaches the same conclusion. Only Basil remains unexcited by the evidence, though Rupert has undoubtedly drawn the logical conclusion based on the given facts. “Of course, logic like that’s not what is really wanted. It’s a question of spiritual atmosphere. It’s not a criminal letter.” When Rupert insists that the facts are plain enough, Basil is moved to give his opinion of “facts” and to articulate, albeit poetically, his entire philosophy of detection:
“Facts,” murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off animals, “how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly—in fact, I’m off my head—but I never could believe in that man—what’s his name, in those capital stories?—Sherlock Holmes. Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousand twigs on a tree. It’s only the life of the tree that has unity and goes up—only the green blood that springs, like a fountain, at the stars.”
Like the trunk of the tree, the ordinary truth at the heart of the mystery is easier to read than the more conspicuous signs at its fringes, and so Basil’s intuition proves correct. Major Brown was merely the unwitting client of a niche business that orchestrated interactive “adventures and intrigues” (easy to grasp for any fans of “escape rooms” or David Fincher’s The Game) for men with otherwise boring lives. Though logic naturally made different sense of the evidence, Basil contends that the reality behind that evidence is far more mundane than murder ever could be, and the reader, too, is made to see the most likely explanation—a homicidal plot—as, in fact, the most outlandish possibility. When Chesterton has thoroughly catechized his readers in “the poetry of modern life,” a homicidal plot would indeed be far less satisfying than the truth.
Although his earlier stories lack subtlety, Chesterton eventually developed a more refined approach to his formula and Father Brown was born. (The Father Brown stories can be so subtle, in fact, that often their hero will not take center stage or appear at all until the second or third act of the story.) Like Basil Grant, Father Brown is a student of human nature and sin—a knowledge he gained from years listening to men in the confessional. He is a longtime observer of the thing most common to man—the heart itself; that body of general knowledge renders him immune to the distractions of extraordinary circumstances.
In “The Absence of Mr. Glass,” Father Brown is initially overshadowed by another sleuth—an aristocratic detective famous for advising kings and solving international crimes through empirical observation and careful deduction. Visiting a boarding house, the two happen upon the scene of an apparent crime. After hearing a heated argument between two male voices and the breaking of glass, they enter the room of a young resident to find smashed stemware, a bloody dagger, and the young man himself alone and bound with ropes. The famous detective offers a theatrical interpretation of the scene worthy of Conan Doyle, surmising that the young man in bondage is, in fact, a murderer who killed the man he was arguing with, hid the body, and tied himself up to allay suspicion. Father Brown sees through the chaos with a chuckle and suggests, instead, that the young man is an aspiring ventriloquist and stage magician who still drops the wine glasses he juggles and nicks himself during his sword-swallowing routine. Of course, Brown’s solution is the correct one, and there was never any crime at all.
The intuitions of Chesterton’s detectives lead them into the common truth of uncommon circumstances and the extraordinary reality of ordinary signs.
In the case of “The Absence of Mr. Glass,” Father Brown does possess one piece of special knowledge (though his rival detective knows it, too). The young man in question has hopes of marrying, but the girl of his fancy won’t accept him until he has a reliable vocation. In Chesterton’s economy of mystery, human evil is typically boring and usual, while it is human goodness that can surprise and astonish (Chesterton was anticipating storytellers like the Coen Brothers in this). An altercation and murder would be all too ordinary, but overzealous application to a dangerous craft, all for the love of a woman? Mystery of a higher order.
The thinly veiled parodies of Sherlock Holmes in stories like “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown” and “The Absence of Mr. Glass” repeatedly show right (deductive) method leading to wrong conclusions. Facts are the fodder for deductive reasoning, but Chesterton presents facts as ambiguous storytellers. In “The Invisible Man,” the facts of the case serve only to frustrate investigators: A young woman is receiving threatening letters from a mysterious figure and even hears his voice at the very moment she opens them, but always finds the road deserted when she rushes out of her house to glimpse the culprit. The same man even slips past sentries to murder a man under police protection and slips away again, this time with the body of his victim in tow. While the other principals of the story stand outside the victim’s apartment building, scratching their heads about this invisible assailant, Father Brown reaches out suddenly to lay hands on a passing mailman—the murderer, of course. Because no one has been attending to the common elements of life—only to the special elements of the case—they have failed to notice the same mailman coming and going under their noses. Their inattention has rendered him virtually invisible, overcomplicating an otherwise simple mystery because the ambiguous “facts” of the case led them up and away from the humble truth. As a devotee to the poetry of the ordinary, Father Brown deals comfortably in ambiguities.
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In “The Secret Garden,” Chesterton even suggests that the sensational “facts” of a mystery can become the tools of the criminal himself. A renowned investigator, Valentin, uses his knowledge of detection to commit his own terrible crime and leave a trail of evidence—including a bloody saber and not one but two severed heads—leading away from himself and toward an innocent man he dislikes. Ultimately, though, Father Brown questions the only apparent explanation of the evidence. When challenged and asked why he could possibly question the prevailing narrative of the crime, Brown’s only reply is, “Twigs.” It might almost have been an invocation of Basil Grant’s earlier sermon on facts, though he is here referring to the severed scraps of literal twigs found, inexplicably, at the scene of the murder. Twigs can grow any which way, but they always grow, predictably, out of a rooted trunk; while the twigs taken alone can mislead, Father Brown studies their origin and so makes sense of the details. The ordinary object at the root of this murder mystery is the human heart itself, and the predictable hatred to which it is prone.
Many great literary detectives succeed by “getting into the mind of a killer,” but according to the prophet Jeremiah, it is the heart of man that is most deceitful, most unknowable. Facts provide a poor path into it because they are singular. Peculiar evidence is specific to this or that crime, but common realities can be observed again and again; they grow into patterns and become basis for intuition. The intuitions of Chesterton’s detectives lead them into the common truth of uncommon circumstances and the extraordinary reality of ordinary signs.
By employing this poetic turn again and again, Chesterton trains his reader to look with a vision that turns the world inside out—a vision that exposes the vacuity of astonishing spectacle and reveals the unexpected mystery of the ordinary. In an essay on detective stories, Chesterton laments, “Now some literary detectives make the solution more complicated than the mystery, and the crime more complicated than the solution. . . . The secret may appear complex, but it must be simple; and in this . . . it is a symbol of higher mysteries.” Perhaps the very highest.
Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the FORMA Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.
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