Analysis of G. K. Chesterton’s Stories

Before he began writing his Father Brown stories, G. K. Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936) had already published one book of detective fiction. In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton created a detective named Gabriel Syme, who infiltrates an anarchist group in which each of the seven members is named for a different day of the week. Syme replaces the man who had been Thursday. At first, this group seems strange to Syme because he does not understand what the anarchists wish to accomplish. This paradox is resolved when Chesterton explains that all seven “anarchists” are, in fact, detectives assigned separately to investigate this nonexistent threat to society. Although The Man Who Was Thursday does demonstrate Chesterton’s ability to think clearly in order to resolve a problem, the solution to this paradox is so preposterous that many readers have wondered why Chesterton wrote this book, whose ending is so odd. It is hardly credible that all seven members of a secret organization could be police officers. Critics have not been sure how they should interpret this work. Chesterton’s own brother, Cecil, thought that it expressed an excessively optimistic view of the world, but other reviewers criticized The Man Who Was Thursday for its pessimism.

1200px-G._K._Chesterton_at_workIn his Father Brown stories, this problem of perspective does not exist because it is the levelheaded Father Brown who always explains the true significance of scenes and events that had mystified readers and other characters as well. The other characters, be they detectives, criminals, suspects, or acquaintances of the victim, always come to the conclusion that Father Brown has correctly solved the case.

The Secret of Father Brown

In his 1927 short story “The Secret of Father Brown,” Chesterton describes the two basic premises of his detective. First, Father Brown is very suspicious of any suspect who ues specious reasoning or expresses insincere religious beliefs. Father Brown senses intuitively that a character who reasons incorrectly might well be a criminal. Second, Father Brown strives to “get inside” the mind of “the murderer” so completely that he is “thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions.” Father Brown needs to understand what drives the guilty party to commit a specific crime before he can determine who the criminal is and how the crime was committed.

Most critics believe that the best Father Brown stories are those that were published in Chesterton’s 1911 volume The Innocence of Father Brown. Although his later Father Brown stories should not be neglected, his very early stories are ingenious and have remained popular with generations of readers. Several stories in The Innocence of Father Brown illustrate nicely how Father Brown intuitively and correctly solves crimes.

The Blue Cross

In “The Blue Cross,” Aristide Valentin (the head of the Paris police) is sent to London to arrest a notorious thief named Flambeau, who is a master of disguises. Valentin knows that Flambeau is well over six feet tall, but he does not know how Flambeau is dressed. As Valentin is walking through London, his attraction is suddenly drawn to two Catholic priests. One is short and the other is tall. The short priest acts strangely so that he would attract attention. He deliberately throws soup on a wall in a restaurant, upsets the apples outside of a grocery store, and breaks a window in another restaurant. This odd behavior disturbs the merchants, who consequently ask police officers to follow the priests, who are walking toward the Hampstead Heath. Readers soon learn that the short priest wants to be followed for his own protection. Just as the tall priest, who is, in fact, Flambeau, orders Father Brown, the short priest, to turn over a sapphire cross that he was carrying to a church in Hampstead, Father Brown tells him that “two strong policemen” and Valentin are waiting behind a tree in order to arrest Flambeau. The astonished Flambeau asks Father Brown how he knew that he was not a real priest. Readers learn that Father Brown’s suspicion began when, earlier in the story, the tall priest affirmed that only “modern infidels appeal to reason,” whereas true Catholics have no use for it. Father Brown tells Flambeau: “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.” His intuition told him that his tall companion could not have been a priest, and he was right.

Father Brown is not merely an amateur detective. He is above all a priest whose primary responsibility is to serve as a spiritual guide to upright people and sinners alike. Although he brought about Flambeau’s arrest, Flambeau soon turned away from a life of crime. After his release from prison, he became a private detective, and his closest friend became Father Brown. This transformation can be attributed only to the religious teaching that Flambeau received from his spiritual mentor, Father Brown.

The Eye of Apollo

The tenth story in The Innocence of Father Brown is entitled “The Eye of Apollo.” At the beginning of this short story, Flambeau has just opened his detective agency in a new building located near Westminster Abbey. The other tenants in the building are a religious charlatan named Kalon, who claims to be “the New Priest of Apollo,” and two sisters, who are typists. Flambeau and Father Brown instinctively distrust Kalon, who has installed a huge eye of Apollo outside his office. Pauline Stacey, the elder of the two sisters, is attracted to Kalon, whom Joan Stacey dislikes intensely. One afternoon, Pauline falls down an elevator shaft and dies. Flambeau concludes hastily that this was an accident, but Father Brown wants to examine her death more thoroughly. He and Flambeau decide to talk with Kalon before the police officers arrive. Kalon presents the preposterous argument that his “religion” favors life, whereas Christianity is concerned only with death. Father Brown becomes more and more convinced that Kalon is a murderer. To the astonishment of Flambeau, Father Brown proves that Pauline “was murdered while she was alone.” Pauline was blind, and Kalon knew it. As Kalon was waiting in the elevator, he called Pauline, but suddenly he moved the elevator, and the blind Pauline fell into the open shaft. Flambeau wonders, however, why Kalon killed her. Readers learn that Pauline had told Kalon that she was going to change her will and leave her fortune of five hundred thousand pounds to him. Kalon did not realize, however, that her pen had run out of ink before she could finish writing her will. When he first hears Kalon speak, Father Brown knows instantly that this hypocrite is a criminal. At the end of the story, he tells Flambeau: “I tell you I knew he [Kalon] had done it even before I knew what he had done.” Once again Father Brown’s intuition is perfectly correct.

The Secret Garden

Father Brown has the special ability to recognize the true meaning of seemingly insignificant clues, which other characters see but overlook. In The Innocence of Father Brown, there are two other stories, “The Secret Garden” and “The Hammer of God,” that illustrate the effectiveness of Father Brown’s powers of intuition and that also contain rather unexpected endings. Just as they are in “The Blue Cross,” Valentin and Father Brown are major characters in “The Secret Garden.” As the head of the Paris police, Valentin has been so successful in arresting criminals that many men whom he sent to prison have threatened to kill him as soon as they regain their freedom. For his own protection, Valentin has very high walls built around his garden, with the only access to it being through his house. His servants guard the entrance to his house at all times. One evening, Valentin holds a reception, which is attended by Father Brown, a medical doctor, an American philanthropist named Julius Brayne, Commandant O’Brien from the French Foreign Legion, Lord and Lady Galloway, and their adult daughter Lady Margaret. Father Brown learns that Valentin is especially suspicious of all organized religions, especially Catholicism, and Julius Brayne likes to contribute huge sums of money to various religions. During the party, a body with a severed head is found in the garden. All the guests are mystified because the head found next to the body does not belong to any of Valentin’s servants or to any of the guests.

After much reflection on this apparent paradox, Father Brown proves that the head and the body belong to different men. The body was that of Julius Brayne, and the head belonged to a murderer named Louis Becker, whom the French police had guillotined earlier that day in the presence of Valentin, who had obtained permission to bring Becker’s head back to his house. Valentin killed Brayne because of a rumor that Brayne was about to become a Catholic and donate millions to his new church. His hatred for Christianity drove Valentin mad. Father Brown explains calmly that Valentin “would do anything, anything, to break what he calls the superstition of the Cross. He has fought for it and starved for it, and now he has murdered for it.” Valentin’s butler Ivan could not accept this explanation, but as they all went to question Valentin in his study, they found him “dead in his chair.” He had committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills. The ending of this short story is surprising because readers of detective fiction do not suspect that a police commissioner can also be a murderer.

The Hammer of God

In “The Hammer of God,” readers are surprised to learn from Father Brown that the murderer is not a violent madman but rather a very respected member of the community. The Reverend Wilfred Bohun could no longer stand the scandalous behavior of his alcoholic brother Norman, who blasphemed God and humiliated the Reverend Bohun in the eyes of his parishioners. Chesterton states that Wilfred and Norman Bohun belong to an old noble family whose descendants are now mostly “drunkards and dandy degenerates.” Rumor has it that there has been “a whisper of insanity” in the Bohun family. Although Father Brown empathizes with the Reverend Bohun, he nevertheless believes that he should express Christian charity toward his brother. When the body of Norman Bohun is found outside his brother’s church, Father Brown begins to examine the case. Father Brown finally comes to the conclusion that the Reverend Bohun killed his brother by dropping a hammer on him from the church tower. The murderer tried to frame the village idiot because he knew that the courts would never hold an idiot responsible for murder. At the end of this story, the Reverend Bohun and Father Brown have a long conversation, and Father Brown dissuades the Reverend Bohun from committing suicide because “that door leads to hell.” He persuades him instead to confess his sin to God and admit his guilt to the police. In prison, the Reverend Bohun, like Flambeau, may find salvation. In both “The Blue Cross” and “The Hammer of God,” Father Brown hates the crime but loves the sinner. Readers are left with the definite impression that Father Brown is absolutely essential for the spiritual growth and eventual salvation of Flambeau and the Reverend Bohun.

Several critics have remarked that the character of Father Brown did not change much in the four volumes of detective fiction that Chesterton wrote after The Innocence of Father Brown. This stability represents, however, strength and not weakness. It would have been inappropriate for a member of the clergy to have stopped caring about the spiritual life of others. Father Brown knows that evil exists in the world, but he also believes that even sinners and murderers can be reformed in this life and saved in the next. Father Brown is a fascinating fictional detective who uses his own religious beliefs in order to solve crimes and express profound insights into the dignity of every person.

Other major works
Plays: Magic: A Fantastic Comedy, pr. 1913; The Judgment of Dr. Johnson, pb. 1927; The Surprise, pb. 1952.
Anthologies: Thackeray, 1909; Samuel Johnson, 1911 (with Alice Meynell); Essays by Divers Hands, 1926.
Novels: Basil Howe: A Story of Young Love, wr. 1894, pb. 2001; The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 1904; The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, 1908; The Ball and the Cross, 1909; The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911; Manalive, 1912; The Flying Inn, 1914; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1914; The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926; The Return of Don Quixote, 1926; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927; The Floating Admiral, 1931 (with others); The Scandal of Father Brown, 1935; The Vampire of the Village, 1947.
Miscellaneous: Stories, Essays, and Poems, 1935; The Coloured Lands, 1938; The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, 1986-1999 (35 volumes); The Truest Fairy Tale: An Anthology of the Religious Writings of G. K. Chesteron, 2007 (Kevin L. Morris, editor).
Nonfiction: The Defendant, 1901; Robert Louis Stevenson, 1902 (with W. Robertson Nicoll); Thomas Carlyle, 1902; Twelve Types, 1902 (revised as Varied Types, 1903, and also known as Simplicity and Tolstoy); Charles Dickens, 1903 (with F. G. Kitton); Leo Tolstoy, 1903 (with G. H. Perris and Edward Garnett); Robert Browning, 1903; Tennyson, 1903 (with Richard Garnett); Thackeray, 1903 (with Lewis Melville); G. F. Watts, 1904; Heretics, 1905; Charles Dickens: A Critical Study, 1906; All Things Considered, 1908; Orthodoxy, 1908; George Bernard Shaw, 1909 (revised edition, 1935); Tremendous Trifles, 1909; Alarms and Discursions, 1910; The Ultimate Lie, 1910; What’s Wrong with the World, 1910; William Blake, 1910; A Defence of Nonsense, and Other Essays, 1911; Appreciations and Criticisms of theWorks of Charles Dickens, 1911; The Future of Religion: Mr. G. K. Chesterton’s Reply to Mr. Bernard Shaw, 1911; A Miscellany of Men, 1912; The Conversion of an Anarchist, 1912; The Victorian Age in Literature, 1913; Thoughts from Chesterton, 1913; London, 1914 (with Alvin Langdon Coburn); Prussian Versus Belgian Culture, 1914; The Barbarism of Berlin, 1914; Letters to an Old Garibaldian, 1915; The Crimes of England, 1915; The So- Called Belgian Bargain, 1915; A Shilling for My Thoughts, 1916; Divorce Versus Democracy, 1916; Temperance and the Great Alliance, 1916; A Short History of England, 1917; Lord Kitchener, 1917; Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays, 1917; How to Help Annexation, 1918; Charles Dickens Fifty Years After, 1920; Irish Impressions, 1920; The New Jerusalem, 1920; The Superstition of Divorce, 1920; The Uses of Diversity, 1920; Eugenics and Other Evils, 1922; What I Saw in America, 1922; Fancies Versus Fads, 1923; St. Francis of Assisi, 1923; The End of the Roman Road: A Pageant of Wayfarers, 1924; The Superstitions of the Sceptic, 1924; The Everlasting Man, 1925; William Cobbett, 1925; A Gleaming Cohort, Being from theWords of G. K. Chesterton, 1926; The Catholic Church and Conversion, 1926; The Outline of Sanity, 1926; Culture and the Coming Peril, 1927; Robert Louis Stevenson, 1927; Social Reform Versus Birth Control, 1927; Do We Agree? A Debate, 1928 (with George Bernard Shaw); Generally Speaking, 1928 (essays); G. K. C. as M. C., Being a Collection of Thirtyseven Introductions, 1929; The Thing, 1929; At the Sign of the World’s End, 1930; Come to Think of It, 1930; The Resurrection of Rome, 1930; The Turkey and the Turk, 1930; All Is Grist, 1931; Is There a Return to Religion?, 1931 (with E. Haldeman-Julius); Chaucer, 1932; Christendom in Dublin, 1932; Sidelights on New London and Newer York, and Other Essays, 1932; All I Survey, 1933; G. K. Chesterton, 1933 (also known as Running After One’s Hat, and Other Whimsies); St. Thomas Aquinas, 1933; Avowals and Denials, 1934; Explaining the English, 1935; The Well and the Shallows, 1935; As I Was Saying, 1936; Autobiography, 1936; The Man Who Was Chesterton, 1937; The End of the Armistice, 1940; The Common Man, 1950; The GlassWalking-Stick, and Other Essays from the “Illustrated London News,” 1905-1936, 1955; Lunacy and Letters, 1958; Where All Roads Lead, 1961; The Man Who Was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. Chesterton, 1963; The Spice of Life, and Other Essays, 1964; Chesterton on Shakespeare, 1971.
Poetry: Greybeards at Play: Literature and Art for Old Gentlemen—Rhymes and Sketches, 1900; The Wild Knight, and Other Poems, 1900 (revised, 1914); The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911; A Poem, 1915; Poems, 1915; Wine, Water, and Song, 1915; Old King Cole, 1920; The Ballad of St. Barbara, and Other Verses, 1922; Poems, 1925; The Queen of Seven Swords, 1926; Gloria in Profundis, 1927; Ubi Ecclesia, 1929; The Grave of Arthur, 1930.

Clipper, Lawrence J. G. K. Chesterton. New York: Twayne, 1974.
Conlon, D. J., ed. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Crowe, Marian E. “G. K. Chesterton and the Orthodox Romance of Pride and Prejudice.” Renascence 49 (Spring, 1997): 209-221.
Fagerberg, David W. The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.
Horst, Mark. “Sin, Psychopathology, and Father Brown.” The Christian Century 104 (January 21, 1987): 46-47.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Tadie, Andrew A., and Michael H. Macdonald, eds. Permanent Things: Toward the Recovery of a More Human Scale at the End of the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1995.
Wills, Garry. Chesterton. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

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