Father Brown

Father Brown is a peculiar figure.  He is a Roman Catholic priest who looks rather foolish and sometimes seems to have little understanding of the situation.  But in the end, it turns out that he is the only one who sees through everything.  The truth in his stories are simple (Chesterton believed that “the truth” in detective fictions should be simple), though shrouded by confusing or seemingly absurd situations.  The true meat of Father Brown stories is when the truth is revealed, the readers see the situation differently.

Spoiler ahead, but it is required to make my point.

In Father Brown’s first story, The Blue Cross, Father Brown walks with the thief Flambeau disguised as a priest.  Two priests are supposed to carry very valuable crucifix to another church, and Flambeau plans to steal the crucifix from Father Brown.

But on their way, Father Brown does series of extraordinary things, such as throwing soup on the wall or switching the position of salt and sugar – all of these are noticed by the police detective Valentin.  In the end, Father Brown is left alone with Flambeau in the middle of isolated place and Father Brown reveals that he saw through Flambeau’s disguise and the crucifix is in safe place.  All his weird actions – throwing soup bowls or breaking windows to compensate for over payment – were his test to examine Flambeau and through theological conversation Father Brown realized that Flambeau was not a clergyman.  In addition to this, Father Brown knew that the police were on their tail, and deliberately created scenes to lure police.  So in the end, the dumb looking priest was smarter than both the star detective and the master thief.

When Flambeau asks Father Brown how he could have known about criminals, Father Brown explains that since he listens to confessions of criminals he knows about their methods well.  Such reversion of stereotype occurs constantly in Father Brown stories and it provides intellectual stimulus to the readers.  Father Brown’s stories are filled with psychological examination of extraordinary criminals and the readers have to examine the characters more to figure out the criminals.

The tricks used in the stories exploit people’s stereotypes and assumptions, but the truth is simple if one can see through them.  For example, Arrow can be used to stab people, but the characters in the story are obsessed with the idea that arrow must be shot from the distance that they are unable to figure out the simple solution.  But the solutions of Father Brown stories are satisfying because it enlightens the readers rather than ridicule them.  It was G.K Chesterton’s belief that detective fictions should enlighten rather than confuse; therefore he made sure the crimes in the stories are simple yet shrouded with supernatural or impossible cover.  Similar theme was used in Chesterton’s other wonderful work The Club of Queer Trade, which is about the people with extraordinary occupations.  These stories start out with surreal air, then give reasonable explanations about the situation.  The character in The Club of Queer Trade emphasizes the usage of “common sense” (which is not common at all if you read the stories) to see through the confusing situations and find the truth.

I love Chesterton’s paradoxical view, because such perspective encourages the reader’s creativity in analysis of the details in the story.  His perspective adds philosophical depth to the stories as well since his stories question how people’s minds are shrouded with all the social and cultural assumption, and explain how they can be harmful to seeing the truth.  Reading Chesterton’s detective stories are more than just reading crime mysteries, because the author is asking you theological and philosophical questions as well.

Although Father Brown stories did not attain the same classic status as Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s stories (Father Brown rarely explains how he arrives his solution.  He simply explains that he thinks like criminals, but you can see how such methods can be hard to be studied, unlike Holmes’ deduction, or “abduction” depending on how you define his method), they stand out as the mystery genre’s fine attempt to offer more than an intellectual entertainment.  Mystery genres have asked many social questions in the past, but I believe the genre can be used to examine different sectors of human lives.  Father Brown stories showed me that such attempt is possible.



One thought on “Father Brown

  1. Pingback: Father Brown | Deep in the well

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