Father Brown: Selected Stories by G.K. Chesterton
Publisher: Collector’s Library
Pages: 456 (Hardback)
Form: Anthology of Short Stories
Series: Father Brown (selected stories from all 5 volumes)
Father Brown is a small, round Catholic priest with a highly developed understanding of the criminal mind, derived from the hours he has spent listening to the penitent confessing their sins. His diminutive, unassuming presence disguises a powerful intellect and the ability to solve the strangest crimes in the most fascinating manner. This collection of stories draws upon all five Father Brown books and demonstrates their considerable range. From the unparalleled invention of ‘The Blue Cross’ to the bizarre mystery of ‘The Blast of the Book’, these stories contain as much wisdom as they do wonder.
It’s not often I read ‘best of’ anthologies like this, I normally like to start a series at the beginning and read from there. But I’m a sucker for pretty books that easily fit in my handbag and, though I love short crime stories, I wasn’t entirely sure I would enjoy Father Brown. So when I saw the Collector’s Library had brought out a ‘Selected Stories’ anthology and that it was sitting on a 3 for 2 table in Blackwell’s I decided it looked like a decent buy – which it was.
This book collects together 18 of Chesterton’s 53 Father Brown stories. The quality of the mysteries was variable – some I solved myself quite easily, some I was puzzled by, and some I worked out only just before the reveal – but all were enjoyable. I had thought, after hearing Radio 4 adaptations of several stories before, that I might find Father Brown a bit heavy-handed – and I did occasionally – but after reading this collection I definitely feel like tracking down the other 30-odd stories. Luckily I believe Father Brown is out of copyright in the UK so I should be able to get them for free on the internet.
Because it’s crime fiction I’ll try not to be too spoilery and because there are 18 stories I won’t review them all but try instead to give a hopefully not-too-vague overview of the high and low points and my general feelings on the collection as a whole.
As I mentioned the mysteries came in varying degrees of solve-ability and the ease with which I pieced together the basic solutions for some really did surprise me (The Mistake in the Machine, The Dagger with Wings, The Blast of the Book, and, ironically, The Insoluble Problem). However this surprise is, in part, due to having developed a different and more critical relationship with reading and picking up clues than I had during my last major crime reading spree when was between 9 and 12. Back then I read a lot of Agatha Christie (Poirot, not Marple) and I don’t think I ever once solved the mystery before the reveal – partly because I didn’t try – I would see the clues being pointed out and go ‘oh I wonder how that’s going to fit in, I better read on and see’ rather than trying to develop my own conclusions and theories. Since then I’ve moved onto Arthur Conan Doyle, who very deliberately doesn’t show the readers all the clues Holmes spots in most of his stories. So a series of crime stories where I was presented all the clues and was able to reach the right conclusions by myself was rather novel. That said I do think The Dagger with Wings especially was just a bit too obvious. The Blast of the Book came after too many stories where ‘magic’ and superstition had been proven false for me to set much store in the presented ‘cursed book’ explanation – which once discounted leaves a pretty simple puzzle. And the Insoluble Problem suffered from being written as a short story – the small apparently unrelated detail was simply too obvious in a format where every detail has to be there for a reason.
Perversely I found the second story in this collection, The Secret Garden, a let down at the end because the conclusion was so unexpected that it just felt bizarre, left-field, and frankly quite stupid. That’s not to say it’s a bad story, it’s a very nice short story and the solution did get me thinking and questioning my own biases in the conclusions I had drawn – but I think I would need to do some research on the political situation in France at the time before I can decide if the motivation given for the crime is evenly remotely plausible. This story, along with a couple of others, also got me quite pleasantly pondering on how much more difficult it would be to write these kind of classic detective stories today – forensic analysis would have cleared up the odd circumstances and red herrings surrounding the murder straight away leaving the detective only to work out who actually dun-it. I certainly don’t envy modern crime writers trying to produce ‘unsolvable’ murders in contemporary settings – no wonder they tend to go quite gritty when the ‘classic’ murders of yesteryear that treat murder as barely more than a fun puzzle would be so easily solved by modern technology. You simply couldn’t write a crime like this (or indeed several of Christie’s) today without being rebuked by anybody and everybody who has seen an episode of CSI. I personally, however, am a big fan of cosy fun British detective stories (with the exception of Midsomer Murders – that stuff is dross and British TV and detective fiction should not be judged on it) so I enjoyed these stories even when I could point out were modern policing would be a major help. In fact I quite like the absence of these aspects – means the crimes can be as whacky and comical as the author likes, and that’s kinda fun.
Father Brown also made for an enjoyable amateur detective – a little more on the Poirot side of the Holmes-Poirot scale. I don’t know if other people use this sort of measuring system but the Holmes represents evidence-based deduction (he’s very happy to scrabble round the crime scene looking for clues and actually pioneered fingerprinting before it was really a thing the police did) while Poirot at the other end disdains that as a waste of time and prefers to sit in an armchair and use his ‘leettle grey cells’. Father Brown has elements of both – he’s a more humble man than Poirot and will quite happily study the physical evidence where there is any, but most of his solutions come from his knowledge and understanding of human nature – his ‘leettle grey cells’. This understanding, apparently, comes in part from time spent on the priest’s side of a confession box, and was a touch I rather liked, his explanation to the criminal who underestimates him in The Blue Cross is both thought-provoking and a great put down “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?”. What is never explained though is how Father Brown ever has time to hear any confessions whatsoever, when he seemingly spends all his time traveling round Europe solving unlikely crimes. But that’s the nature of the genre, anyone who is remotely skilled in solving crimes will stumble upon them wherever they go, so I’ll forgive him that. It would probably be a very dull story were we to just read about his normal priestly life after all (or perhaps not – given the apparent range of criminal methods and motivations he seems to learn from his congregation).
Unlikely habit of stumbling across crimes aside, I enjoyed him as a detective more than I thought I would. Partly because I had been expecting him to be more heavy-handed with the Catholic theology than he was but also, I think, partly because he wasn’t the ‘main’ character in a lot of the stories. Yes, he was there, he solved the crime, but in rather a lot he is simply a helpful visitor flitting into someone else’s life for a little bit; The Blue Cross, The Secret Garden, the Invisible Man, The Blast of the Book, The Paradise of Thieves and several more all start out from the third-person perspective of another character who is more intimately involved with the actual crime with Father Brown taking at least a few pages to appear. This lack of overexposure works well, though it can be a little tiresome to see the other characters in these stories always reacting to and describing him in similar terms ‘fat, Catholic, looks stupid’. It was Father Brown’s actual detective friend who suffered most for being in too many of the stories – in the same way the police suffer in regular detective stories; when an amateur is solving pretty much all of the crimes the reader has to start doubting the apparent ‘genius’ of the guy who’s meant to be doing it.
The Catholic element, though undoubtedly there, is mostly underplayed and not too objectionably preachy, which I was very relieved by. There were a couple of small quotations on Scottish Presbyterianism and Buddhism that irked me – the Buddhist one especially because I can’t attribute it to Father Brown trying to tell his audience what they wanted to hear to get them to talk – but for the most part the stories (in this selection at least) were inoffensive and promoted morals rather than doctrines and friendship between faiths rather than the opposite. I’ll admit I objected to one especially obnoxious character in The Hammer of God having the adjective ‘atheist’ constantly appended to him whenever he did or said anything and being looked down by all three of the religious men (a priest, a vicar and a lay Presbyterian), but then I’d also be the first to admit that some atheists are obnoxious bastards – just as some Catholics, Church of England-ers, and Presbyterian’s are.
All in all a solid 4 star read – though admittedly these stories were selected from a much wider and probably even more varied quality pool. Based purely on the numbers of stories each of the official volumes contributed, I would recommend the first book ,The Innocence of Father Brown, – which provides 7 of the 18 stories here, if you were wanting to read a proper volume rather than a ‘Best of’.