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Flashback: FOOTPRINTS: The Secret of Father Brown

Originally published in issue 3.

FOOTPRINTS: The Secret of Father Brown

by Ruth Jordan

One of the true joys of my young reading life was the day I graduated from the Encyclopedia Brown stories to those of G.K. Chesterton. There is magic in a young reader’s heart and to this day I remember the wonder I felt when my Grandmother Flannery deemed me to be mature enough for the world of Father Brown and Flambeau.

G.K. Chesterton was a renaissance man caught up in the beginnings of the industrial age. Born in 1874 in the city of London, Chesterton was a gifted scribe and a great thinker. An influence within not only the world of mystery, but also the literary world in general, Chesterton was first and always a reporter. Amongst those he called friend were people as diverse as H.G. Wells and Hilaire Belloc. Winston Churchill read his work and so did Ghandi.

For this article I will stay focused on the mysterious portion of this man’s incredible resume, but at the conclusion of this little piece I will send you to resources where you can experience the poet, the theologian, the moralist, the critic and even the cartoonist.

G.K. Chesterton is credited as being the first person to use the term “mystery story” in the written form.

 

Already established within the literary world of his day by 1911, in that year Gilbert Keith Chesterton released a book of short stories that played with a new form of fiction called the mystery story. The title of the collection was THE INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN and the first and second stories within the collection are still discussed with reverence by mystery scholars.

THE BLUE CROSS is a story where all is not as it seems but all is as it appears. This sets it apart from the other tales of detective fiction of its time. The stories of Conan Doyle and his imitators were enjoying an immense popularity. Katherine Anna Green had established the amateur detective. Baroness Orczy had come up with the secret of the hidden identity. The only thing missing was the unwritten agreement between the mystery author and his reader to play fair. With THE BLUE CROSS Chesterton became one of the first mystery authors to adhere to this pact aux deux.

Are you unfamiliar with the tale? As THE BLUE CROSS opens Valentin “head of the Paris police and the most famous investigator of the world” is heading to London to make the greatest arrest of the century.

Flambeau, the great criminal, has been spotted and although traveling disguised, should be easy for the detective to spot. He stands six feet four inches tall, after all. On the train from Harwich to Liverpool Street there is no one who fits this description. There is, however, a very short clergyman with the roundest of heads, empty eyes and an umbrella. The priest declares to all his fellow passengers that he is carrying a cross of silver with blue stones that is immensely valuable. It is our first look at Father Brown. Soon Valentin has debarked and is after his man. Strange things begin to happen. A breakfast where there is salt in the sugar bowl and sugar in the saltshakers. Switched signs at a fruit stand. A window paid for before it is broken by “one of those clergy men.”

The reader nods their head at the fair play. For we can see this must be the priest. And is the tall clergyman with him perhaps Flambeau? Have we deduced what the great detective is still scrambling to find out? The answer is, yes, we have. For Father Brown has concluded that the rather tall clergy who has met his train is up to no good. He leaves a trail for the detective to follow him and his unwanted cohort, switching packages to protect his cross.

At the conclusion of this first story, Chesterton offers us great insight into the character of Father Brown. In answer to Flambeau’s question of how Brown has managed this, he states, “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?”

The similarity in appearance between Father Brown and Charlie Brown is no accident. Charles Shultz was a fan of Chesterton’s detective.

 

Chesterton’s second tale is titled THE SECRET GARDEN. We are in Paris this time out. At the home of the detective Valentin, a group of diners have arrived for a dinner party and the host makes his apologies for being late. Making up the dinner party are an English ambassador, his wife, his daughter Margaret, a French scientist, a member of the French Foreign Legion, Father Brown, and an American. Julius K Brayne is a man with lots of money to donate. After dabbling with many religions and sponsoring many “progressive” penmen, he has decided to donate a large part of his fortune to Father Brown’s church.

The stage is set and now Chesterton takes us on a tour of the setting. Valentin’s house is large and grand. The gardens flow from every room but there is but one entrance to the home. Guarded by Valentin’s man, Ivan, there is no way for anyone to exit without being seen. The evening unfolds. Clashing personalities and an old love story make for a tense dinner. After dinner the party disperses for smoking and conversation. And then comes the scream…

Our French legionnaire has stumbled across a corpse in the garden. What’s more, the man has been decapitated and the face is not one recognized by the group. When the dinner guests are summoned, Brayne proves to be missing. How could he have left? Ivan was at his post the entire time!

In 2004, the answer appears obvious even from my brief synopsis, but in 1911 this was a stunning piece of work. For, of course the body is Brayne’s. Just as obvious is the fact that the only person who could have choreographed a series of events like this is the home’s owner. The night of the dinner party, the only one to see it is our man, Father Brown. Valentin, you see, is a man who believes in no God and the fact that a rich American is about to make a “sect” stronger with his cash has aroused in the policeman a rage with only one solution. He must be got gone as they say. The “world’s most famous detective” has in only his second appearance already defied his established character. He commits first murder and, upon being caught, suicide. Brilliant!

Why, you ask? Firstly, Chesterton establishes the theme for his Father Brown stories. There will be the struggle of good and evil within men who are both good and evil. For every man is capable of both. It is a truth that Chesterton plays with throughout all of the Brown tales.

Secondly, it is with the exception of a Conan Doyle tale, the first of the sub-genre, “the locked room mystery.” Rather than having an old air duct be the improbable conclusion to the tale, Chesterton shows us that a locked room is just that and we must therefore look for our conclusion amongst the presented facts. John Dickson Carr is credited as being the father of this special part of the mystery world and he, in turn, credits Chesterton as a major influence

What makes THE SECRET GARDEN truly special is the audacity of the author. Think about it. This is his first collection of stories. In the first, he decides that his amateur detective will play with and against “the great detective” Valentin. Only, Valentin doesn’t really work as a character for Chesterton. Valentin is an atheist, believing much more in law and order than in good and evil. Chesterton wants to look at crime from the perspective of philosophy and religion but not have to pound his reader over the head with it. What to do? Why, you kill the character off and in doing so establish the parameters for your series. Brilliant and a perfect preamble. Remember Flambeau? That’s right, our criminal from the first story is about to reappear and become Father Brown’s foil. In THE BLUE CROSS, Father Brown comments to the gentleman that he “cannot be all bad yet” and after escaping from the police, Flambeau changes his name back to the one given him by his family, becomes a well renowned detective, marries and has children, and always remembers his past while upholding justice with the dignity of a gentleman.

THE INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN came out in 1911. THE WISDOM OF FATHER BROWN was published in 1914. In 1922 Chesterton released a series of short stories called THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (no relation to Hitchcock’s movie) that featured another amateur detective named Horne Fisher. It wasn’t until 1926 that he returned to Father Brown with the collection THE INCREDULITY OF FATHER BROWN.

Chesterton’s life long friend, E.C. Bentley, wrote the book “Trent’s Last Case” as a rebuttal to what he believed to be wrong about the mystery genre after several conversations with Chesterton. Bentley’s tongue-in cheek critique of the genre is universally hailed as the beginning of the contemporary detective novel.

 

In 1927 came THE SECRET OF FATHER BROWN . Critics have declared his tales to be weaker by this point, not as effective nor as entertaining as the previous collections, but let me share this quote, “There is a limit to human charity,” said Lady Outram, trembling all over.

“There is,” said Father Brown dryly; “and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness today; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it

seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.” **

The man was still in fine form. The first and last stories in this collection are not to be missed by any student or writer of the mystery genre. The first is THE SECRET OF FATHER BROWN. The setting: a reunion between the title character and his one time sidekick Flambeau. Set in Spain, where Flambeau has retired, it is a fascinating look at both Brown and Chesterton. An American neighbor has heard that his neighbor, Duroc (Flambeau), is hosting the world famous detective scientist. He comes to dinner and a lively discussion of detectives both fictional and “real” ensues. When the party gets to the subject of Brown’s methodology the American, Chace comments that his countrymen believe the good Father to have second sight. Horrified by this association with the occult, Brown sets out to explain himself 16 years after the first stories have appeared.

The secret is,” he said and then stopped as if unable to go on. Then he began again and said:

You see, it was I who killed all those people.”

As a result, Father Brown announces his empathic skills and is the first “profiler” in all of detective fiction. Because, in truth, that is how he solves the crimes. He becomes the murderer and therefore knows who the murderer is. Not exactly Tony Hill, but a forefather certainly.

The last story in this collection, THE SECRET OF FLAMBEAU occurs with the same three principals. His true identity is revealed to the American. Flambeau, happy, retired and living large is haunted by the fact that he has never suffered the consequences of his early professional life. What will Chace do with the information? Read the story and find out.

The last collection of short stories was released the year before Chesterton’s death. THE SCANDAL OF FATHER BROWN is another group of stories that will keep the reader thinking and is a nice nightcap to a luminous career within the mystery genre.

As I promised at the beginning of this piece, I have two places for you to go to learn more about this gifted thinker. The first is the American Chesterton Society, located on the web at www.chesterton.org. It is from here that I lifted the asterisked quote. The second web site I’ll send you to is titled simply G.K. Chesterton and has the URL www.dur.ac.uk/martin.ward/gkc/.

There are many other resources on the web, but these two are my favorites. They can send you to all of Chesterton’s work. And, in the end, the work defines the man. That being so, G.K. Chesterton was a giant among men. Thanks Grammy!