Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Mystery Stories of G. K. Chesterton

In most parts of the English-speaking and non-Catholic cultural world, if G. K. Chesterton is remembered at all, it is as a detective writer. This generalization is both correct and not. Chesterton is a great writer of mystery stories. The Man Who Was Thursday, The Man Who Knew Too Little, Manalive, and Father Brown are among the greatest tales of the genre ever told. What separates him from the rest of the Law and Order, CSI, or even Sherlock Holmes crowd is that his stories are primarily neither tales of the primacy of human wit nor, more importantly, ones which seek out and exaggerate the deepest evils of a man's soul the pessimistic reader can muster. Chesterton, the great optimist, writes not to entertain, but to convince--to make the reader see the world as it really is, but to accept that that world is beautiful nevertheless.

It is for this thematic reason that the contrast between two of Chesterton's most memorable detective characters, Horne Fisher from The Man Who Knew Too Much and Father Brown from the detective stories of the same name, is so striking. It seems difficult to believe both characters were created by the same man.

Father Brown is a bumbling, dumpy English priest. A great, French detective describes him thus: 'The little priest was so much the essence of those Eastern flats; he had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea.' Time and again he is perceived this way, and time and again he surprises those around him--sometimes heads of state and captains of industry--with his powers of observation. It isn't just the small details that Father Brown notices. He is really aware of the way men think and act and this ability makes him a good detective. He doesn't always turn a culprit over to the police, sometimes successfully dislodging hardened criminals from a life in crime in way of which the modern penal system is entirely incapable. He is a champion of reason, sometimes providing simple explanations that fly in the face the fantastic theories of great skeptics who consider the priest's religion to be silly superstition. Despite surviving five volumes of solving often gruesome crimes, Father Brown keeps a twinkle in his eye and an optimism about man's capacity for good.

Horne Fisher first and solely appears in Chesterton's novel (really more of a book of related stories) called The Man Who Knew Too Much, published in 1922. Fisher, in contrast to Father Brown, is a wiry, aristocratic man, constantly looking bored. His friend, Howard March, described him as a man, 'who expressed the opinions of a pessimist in the language of a lounger.' He is irritable, sometimes to the point of grumpy. Like Father Brown, he solves mysteries by a real understanding of men--how they think and how they act. Unlike the priest, he says that ability leads him to 'know too much,' to be so aware of what is going on in his society and country, but completely impotent to change anything. He increasingly finds that to denounce one man, is to bring the downfall of another. To reveal the treachery of one fiend is to bring ruin upon the nation. Like Father Brown, he finds himself running in the circles of the most influential and powerful, but unlike Father Brown, he seems personally powerless to change them or the consequences of their actions. He is a profound pessimist of the most un-Chestertonian kind.

The difference between the two characters is, at first, baffling. It is tempting to suppose that Fisher, as the product of a Chesterton who had seen a world war and aged ten years since his creation of Father Brown, is simply the creation of a more knowing mind. But Chesterton was a far subtler man than that. Besides, he wrote Father Brown stories almost until the year of his death.

The two men are linked, and by more than a common understanding of mankind that makes them good detectives. Both men are, in the most literal sense, saints--the only two kinds of saints for the modern world. Father Brown is a saint because he chooses every action based on what is right and what is holy. To all appearances, he is a simpleton, but it is his simple, childlike, saintly faith that makes him what he is. He never rushes to denounce or condemn; he is even prepared to let a thief go free. Father Brown is ultimately concerned with the souls of every man he meets.

Horne Fisher is a saint for a different reason. Nothing about his behavior is particularly saintly. He doesn't seem to bear a great love for those around him. He never seems to try very hard to make much better. Primarily, he is lazy and pessimistic. But all of the choices he makes, all of the thoughts he harbors about justice and compassion for all men, lead up to a climax in which he distinguishes himself for every bit of the saint Father Brown is--only in a different way a reader will have to discover for himself. It is this climactic choice which makes Horne Fisher into a memorable character of literary weight.

The mystery stories of G. K. Chesterton are so good because they are precisely what modern mystery stories are not. They are more concerned with what people are than what people do. They teach the reader about what he is, rather than encouraging him to be repulsed by that which he is not. And, most of all, they are based on the idea that mankind can be redeemed.

I have decided to provide a guide at the bottom of my posts as help for anyone choosing literary texts to teach religion or ethics. I am outlining that which is useful for teaching, not for reading. Thus, particularly for the suggested ages, my assessment would differ for individual leisure reading. Please contact me if you have any questions.

The Father Brown Stories
Appropriate Age: 14+
Look for: Redemption, compassion, charity, a critique of rationalism, the role of a priest
Be Wary of: Violent situations--though usually not graphic
Availability: Free Online (copyright expired)

The Man Who Knew Too Much
Appropriate Age: 16+
Look for: Discernment--making difficult moral choices, patriotism
Be Way of: Violent situations--sometimes graphic, one instance of Antisemitism aimed at usurers
Availability: Free Online (copyright expired)

No comments: