G. K. Chesterton's most famous literary creation is probably Father Brown, the Catholic priest and detective. Father Brown appeared in a series of short stories Chesterton wrote from 1910 to the mid '30s. Father Brown is quite unassuming, with "a face as round and dull as a Yorkshire dumpling" and gray eyes "as empty as the North Sea"; he always carries a battered umbrella and has a habit of stopping conversations dead with quiet and seemingly trivial and utterly irrelevant observations. This mild exterior, though, conceals a skilled deductive mind, a rare insight into human nature, and a deep and nuanced religious faith.
Father Brown's trademark is that he solves his mysteries through knowledge of character and motive, rather than, for example, Holmes knowing the murderer was in the foreign service because he recognizes the ash of a Burmese brand of cheroot1. Occasionally, especially in the later stories, this can become a vehicle for Chesterton's own, deeply felt if slightly quirky, philosophical and religious beliefs, as when Father Brown begins to suspect that somebody is a thief because he believes in reincarnation. In fact, many, if not most, of the Father Brown stories can be read, like most of Chesterton's fiction, as allegory, but it is still possible to read them with pleasure without, so to speak, being prepared to subscribe to Chesterton's newsletter.
Chesterton, as it is obligatory to note when writing about him, is not a fashionable writer these days. His religious orthodoxy, his love of tradition, his deep distrust of any form of utopianism and any attempts to reform human nature, have all placed him deeply at odds with the prevailing currents of philosophy and letters of the last half-century or so. His views have left him gathering dust, along with Kipling, his opposite in so many other ways, in the musty, curio-filled drawer reserved for dead, ideologically regrettable, Englishmen. It is difficult, for instance, for most modern readers to share Chesterton's evident satisfaction when the murderer turns out to be a fanatical atheist who killed the victim to prevent him from converting to Catholicism and leaving his fortune to the church.
Chesterton's virtues as an author, transcend, however, one's view of his philosophy. We can enjoy the wild, festal dance of masks of the harlequinade in "The Flying Stars"2, or the almost Blade Runner-esque menace and anomie of the doomed man living in an anonymous apartment surrounded by clockwork mechanical servants in "The Invisible Man"3, without agreeing with, or even caring about, Chesterton's views on original sin.
Disagreement, naturally, is permissible, but apathy robs the stories of a valuable dimension. Chesterton, for all his self-consciously old-fashioned ideas, is capable of great and surprising depths when one least expects them. Any thoughtful reader, no matter how confirmedly a skeptic (like myself) or an atheist, can benefit from engagement with his ideas, even if only to formulate exactly how he or she disagrees with him. There is a core of deeply guarded optimism and joy at the beauty of the universe in Chesterton's writing that it is salutary to consider.
It is worth noting that, as Martin Gardner quotes Anthony Boucher4, "It took Father Brown eleven years to convert his creator." Chesterton started out as an Anglican, albeit as high church as one could be without believing in papal infallibility, but eventually converted to Catholicism. He was received into the church by Father John O'Connor, the priest who, according to Gardner, Chesterton based Father Brown on5.
The Father Brown stories were originally collected in 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)
- The Scandal of Father Brown (1935)
1 See Borges' excellent essay on this, "Los laberintos policiales y Chesterton" (1935), available in English as "The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton" in Eliot Weinberger's indispensable 1999 Borges collection Selected Non-Fictions.
2 Collected in The Innocence of Father Brown.
4 In his introduction to The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown (1987).