Reviewed by The Fourth Tuesday and Mystery Book Club
G. K. Chesterton was a respected writer in the early 20th century, publishing many essays, articles, and books on a variety of subjects from religion to economics. His most famous character was Father Brown, a short, stumpy Catholic priest who wore shapeless clothing and carried a large umbrella. He had an uncanny insight into human evil and used it to solve mysteries. Chesterton wrote 51 short stories and two vignettes about Father Brown, based on Father John O’Connor, who was involved in Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism in 1922.
Father Brown’s approach was more intuitive than Sherlock Holmes’ deduction. His technique was explained in “The Secret of Father Brown.” “You see, I had murdered them all myself… I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.” His approach is shaped to a great extent because of his position as priest and confessor. He explained it to his friend Flambeau, a reformed criminal, “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?” Father Brown always emphasizes rational thought and makes fun of supernatural solutions.
Throughout his stories, Chesterton presents his view of life and the world by emphasizing the importance of education and religion. Father Brown does not spend his time in a cathedral. He goes out in the real world: small towns, individual homes, both urban and rural settings. He deals with unusual situations, such as a dead man’s body found in an enclosed garden, with no exits, and with the head completely removed. Another murder takes place in a village where a man’s head is smashed in with such force that no one in the area could have even picked up such a heavy hammer. Father Brown’s found another death that might have been caused by three different weapons and by several different individuals. He did not use science, as Sherlock Holmes might have. He used his understanding of people and philosophic truths.
Although these short stories were well written and interesting, it was easy to lose track of events if you stopped reading in the middle of a story and returned later. These are not action, adventure stories, but they allow the reader to think through Father Brown’s mystery with him. We recommend him for mystery fans interested in one of the original fictional detectives.